By Cameron Rasmusson
It’s no secret that the Internet transformed the way people find and consume media.
With so much information available, people are increasingly shaping the types of messages they’re exposed to. Communications scholars are concerned it’s weakening the divide between facts, advertising and propaganda. In this wild west environment, media literacy, long a subject of study, is more important than ever, according to Dr. Seth Ashley of Boise State University.
“It’s really become a buyer-beware environment,” said Ashley, professor of communications for Boise State University. “People need to be more aware of what they’re getting themselves into.”
There was a time when some digital prophets of the ‘90s had nothing but optimism for the Internet’s educational, economic and communication possibilities. In a 1994 speech to the International Telecommunications Union, then-Vice President Al Gore was downright effusive about the possibilities.
“…It will in fact promote the functioning of democracy by greatly enhancing the participation of citizens in decision-making,” he said. “And it will greatly promote the ability of nations to cooperate with each other. I see a new Athenian age of democracy forged in the fora the Global Information Infrastructure will create.”
What few predicted is how, 20 years later, the Internet has multiplied the volume of media people absorb. Between traditional media sources like radio, TV or print and computerized media like tablets, laptops, social networks and video games, the average individual is exposed to a near-constant bombardment of one or several media streams. A 2013 study through the University of Southern California, San Diego estimated that by 2015, the average person would be exposed daily to more than 15 hours of media—enough data to fill up more than nine DVDs. To be clear, that study didn’t measure the level of comprehension or internalization of that media. Nevertheless, the flood of information is startling.
“As we increase the number of simultaneous media streams going into the home, and increase our multi-tasking behaviors, a lot of content assumes the role of background or secondary content streams,” study author James Short told the UC San Diego News Center. “… Moreover, this increasing level of multi-tasking is creating competition between media streams to be the dominant stream at any one time.”
The need for media filters and the near-infinite customization of the digital age presents an unprecedented situation. For the first time, people more or less tailor the content they see or hear, and media outlets are taking advantage of that. Ashley said people are increasingly turning to partisan outlets for news content.
Partisan media outlets are nothing new. In fact, news was almost entirely party-driven prior to the 20th century. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson famously slung vicious attacks at each other through the partisan press during the 1800 election. Likewise, the abolition and pro-slavery movements of the 1800s were largely fueled by the rhetoric in partisan newspapers. Then the rise of mass media in the 20th century brought with it mass advertising, and advertisers didn’t want to alienate half of their potential audience. Initially, objective journalism wasn’t a matter of principle—it was a matter of economics.
Economics once again drives the return to partisan media, and all it takes is a look at the ratings of Fox News or MSNBC to see why. The bottom line also drives the minimization of original, factual reporting in favor of commentary. Why spend money on reporters when panels of people yelling at each other bring in more cash?
“It’s entertaining and people watch it, but it does little to promote an informed public,” Ashley said.
Studies bear the phenomenon out. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, CNN featured 48-percent commentary and 52-percent factual news reporting, Fox News consisted of 45-percent news reporting and 55-percent commentary and MSNBC ran 85-percent commentary and only 15-percent news reporting.
Internet-based new media outlets charted a similar course. Left-wing sites like Daily Kos and Gawker and right-wing sites like Breitbart and Red State use attention-grabbing headlines to draw huge numbers of clicks. And a sizable percentage of those clicks come through posts and shares on social media.
This trend has trickled down all the way to local and state politics. Better Idaho has become a popular blog covering Idaho politics with a left-leaning spin, while Sandpoint’s recent mayoral election and refugee debates brought about a wave of local right-wing websites. And in many cases, the first people hear of breaking story is not from a newspaper, but from the Sandpoint Yard Sale Facebook group.
The problem is that nuanced analysis or original reporting typically don’t drive web traffic. And the more fringe the website, the more common it is to find mischaracterizations, deliberate spin or even outright falsehoods. For Ashley, the 2016 presidential campaigns brought wingnut commentary into the mainstream.
“Some of things Donald Trump has been saying read like one of those forwarded emails you get from your grumpy uncle,” he said.
On the flip side, new media outlets have given rise to entirely new phenomena in current events. Love them or hate them, populist candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have a prayer without Twitter and Facebook. Similarly, Ashley believes net neutrality—the movement to keep the Internet free from corporate meddling—would be a non-issue if new media hadn’t led the charge against it.
Ashley also wonders whether past errors would have occurred had new media been around to fill a void. Mainstream media, for instance, is widely regarded to have failed in scrutinizing the evidence justifying the invasion of Iraq. It’s an open question whether new media would have been as unquestioning.
The democratization of media empowers the public to amplify its voice and accelerate change. But people also need to be responsible in the way they exercise that power. Ashley recommends slowing down to confirm information before sharing it. He also encourages individuals to vary their news sources rather than rely on a single outlet. Above all, he urges consumers to approach media critically, questioning the motives and biases inherent in the source.
“We’re all media producers when we share something on [social media],” Ashley said.