Bad journalism is only a symptom

Photo by Sara Schmitt

The summer before I was a freshman at Tech, I was offered the opportunity to become the Editor in Chief of the Georgia Tech branch of The Odyssey Online, a digital “newspaper” that is created by millennials for millennials. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity; I thought I would be  able to manage a small business, make some money and participate in journalism.

It did not take long before I realized that The Odyssey Online is simply a reskin of BuzzFeed that has made its way onto Tech’s campus. Staff meetings consisted of brainstorming over video-chat on how to increase article views, incentivized by “tiers” that the school branch could achieve with a sizeable sum of money to go along with each one. Every week, my managing editor flaunted the traffic on the website, which was upwards of 30 million per month, as if that somehow assured that our paper’s quality was directly correlated with quantity.

It is no secret that news has always been concerned with viewership and ratings; clickbait existed long before YouTube and BuzzFeed became superpowers in the form of fear-mongering local news stories that perpetuated urban legends. However, BuzzFeed’s business model has proven to be so successful that it has forced countless other existing news organizations to partially adopt it.

This mass-production of content that is tailored to individuals simply confirms existing biases among readers. I have seen article after article go viral that say nothing more than “I am a college student voting for so-and-so, and nothing you can say will convince me I am wrong.” What was an attitude that would normally be condemned is now broadcasted to tens of thousands and validated by those numbers.

But perhaps the most significant and dangerous development in media is the distinct change in reporting style by some of the most large-scale newspapers and networks. Even the most intellectual and prestigious publications like The New Yorker will occasionally publish a BuzzFeed-esque list article that is about as entertaining as its cartoons.

CNN, NBC, MSNBC and other large cable networks do not have the luxury of mass production of cheap articles and instead have modified their messaging to conform to the new clicks- and ratings-based market. For these networks, views that are moderate and “unbiased” are perceived as inherently good and correct as they are backed up by the masses.

This has caused a drastic shift to the political right for many news organizations since Donald Trump took over the news. Under the guise of being “unbiased,” his views were given recognition on a national scale. While it is important that media remain unbiased, it should only be so in the way it presents information and facts. Some ideas like racism ought to be rejected outright and completely in a civilized society, but instead are being given a platform for the sake of conversation; taking a hard stance against racism and bigotry is not bias, it is moral.

Recently, comedian Trevor Noah of The Daily Show hosted TheBlaze opinion reporter Tomi Lahren on his show for a formal interview where he debated with her over whether or not Black Lives Matter is a hate group comparable to the KKK. Clips of the interaction circulated all over social media and many cheered on Noah for his calm and collected rebuttals of Lahren’s views, but at the end of the evening, no one changed their minds and her opinions were given honest and calm consideration. I find it hard to believe that there was no intention of it going viral.

It used to be that the media guided the public in politics and was a source of truth, but now it seems that the opinion of the public guides the media. The change in demand for content has made it dangerous for news organizations to think outside of the box or truly challenge authority. If trust is to be restored to media of all types and the people truly do control what is supplied, then it is our obligation to not settle for less. Demand better journalism and change will follow.