Study: Decline of traditional media feeds polarization

September 19, 2016

No one denies we now have access to immeasurably more information, and that everyone has become capable of publishing and having a public voice. But we must reflect about the possible harm the transformations we are living may bring to the quality of the whole news environment.

Many surveys show the so-called traditional newsrooms–which I like to label “stable platforms of journalistic production”–are still a major source of supply for the news environment. But with newsrooms reeling, and staffing decimated, a weakening of the stable platforms threatens to cause general informational impoverishment, a degradation of the entire information ecosystem.

Adding to the worry, people today are exposed to news mixed with gossip, opinion, hot takes, and branded content, from a variety of sources but often through a single platform–mainly social networks, which tend toward a clustering of like-minded individuals.

Together, the decline of stable platforms of production and social-media-driven feedback loops enfeeble the setting of what social scientists call a “common public agenda.” Societies suffer if people of different opinions can’t at least agree on a basic set of facts and a consensus on the role in daily life of institutions from government to media. That can lead to unexpected and potentially destabilizing behavior in politics and markets.

This new environment–in which the stable platforms are deteriorating while anyone with access to the internet can publish, edit, and republish information–can be defined by a single word: fragmentation. The concept was the central focus of the research I recently ran as a visiting scholar at Columbia Journalism School (check out the full research published by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at University of Texas at Austin, and a 3-minute video animation).

The numbers reveal a decrease in information processed by professional newsrooms and an upsurge in official government propaganda and content propagated through government shills.

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I conducted two quantitative studies in Brazil that for the first time used numbers to quantify the shrinking of the stable platforms. The first was a survey among newspapers associated with the National Newspapers Association, a sample corresponding to 80 percent of their total circulation. In another study, I compared the digital activity of professional newsrooms with that of state governments that produced their own content and disseminated political messages. 

The study provides quantitative data for a discussion on the future quality of the information ecosystem as a whole, and on the kind of information to which citizens and societies will have access. The numbers reveal a decrease in information processed by professional newsrooms and an upsurge in official government propaganda and content propagated through government shills. This kind of metrics could stimulate similar research in other countries–this dynamic may be happening in the US as well.

The results showed 83 percent of newsrooms had reduced the number of journalists on their staff in the last 10 years, and 78 percent cut the space for journalism in print. This was accompanied by an overall reduction of the whole journalistic production, both for print and digital. Even so, between 2013 and 2016, newspapers increased their average number of daily posts on social networks by 6 percent. The number of interactions per post rose by 354 percent. During the same period of time, state governors increased their average number of posts by 91 percent, attracting a 654 percent hike in interactions.

A study by the Pew Research Center, last updated in 2015, observed “a significant decline in the reporting power of mainstream media.” The institute focused its report on the Washington press corps, specifically the “daily newspaper, historically the backbone of American journalism, whose robust Washington presence and aggressive reporting has uncovered scandals that toppled a president, sent members of Congress to jail and does the daily job of covering congressional delegations and federal agencies.”

The Pew Research Center had already rung the alarm bells in 2010, with a study of the information ecosystem in Baltimore, Maryland. The study found that the news environment–whatever the channel of distribution–remains heavily reliant on the original content produced by traditional newsrooms. “While the news landscape has rapidly expanded, most of what the public learns is still overwhelmingly driven by traditional media, particularly newspapers”, the researchers wrote.

The possible enfeeblement of the common public agenda is a real risk outlined by many researchers. In News on the Internet, David Tewksbury and Jason Rittenberg state that “in a fragmented society, the public agenda and mass political behavior are unpredictable.” Pablo Javier Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein, authors of The News Gap, state that “the online environment may erode editorial influence over the public’s agenda as a result of the multiplications of news outlets and the resulting fragmentations of the audience.” And this erosion of power is most keenly felt during crucial political events, they write: “The conceptual and political import of a diminution in the power of the media to set the agenda is particularly critical during periods when the citizenry could benefit most from information about public affairs–periods marked by major political or economic events, such as elections or crises.”

Discussing fragmentation, Boczkowski and Mitchelstein drew attention to one further impact. “The erosion of the agenda-setting influence of mainstream media organizations could lead to the disappearance of broadly shared national concerns,” they state, “thus diminishing the ability of the public to come together on common issues and maximizing social polarization.”

There is strong empirical evidence to suggest that fragmentation feeds polarization. I went in search of evidence to support this contention in studies and reports. The superficiality of the debate on the social media is another catalyst. People want shortcuts (velocity being a key trait of the current informational environment) to rapid “Likes” or “Dislikes,” and this further impoverishes the debate by eradicating all semblance of nuance.

One of the most frequently mentioned examples of polarization is the herd mentality of the peer group. However, this cliquish online behavior is not true only of digital publications. The so-called traditional media have also waded into the fracas. Markus Prior, in Media and Political Polarization, writes that the traditional media’s reaction to the social media is, in a sense, an attempt to “compete” with these new platforms by jumping on all the same bandwagons.

My main concern is that all this transformation can also lead to an impoverishment of journalistic working processes.

Together with these, my main concern is that all this transformation can also lead to an impoverishment of journalistic working processes. The stable platforms–traditional newsrooms–are shrinking. Some new ventures do not keep classic rituals and procedures that support fundamentals like fact-checking, context building and source cross references, just to mention some key methodological examples. I am afraid they are not cultivating the knowledge transmission from veterans to young, a classic on-the-job educating in newsrooms, as a result of the increasing demand for speed.

In many cases, I see journalism being applied as a format, as a way of packaging–pieces seem to be journalistic, but they aren’t. Eventually some pieces are labeled as “news,” but if we look closer we will see raw information mixed with non-fact based opinions. In this cases, journalism is being applied as a simple format. Journalism is a method.

In this whole changing environment, new generations are growing up not differentiating journalism from entertainment, journalism from advocacy, and even information from opinion–a minimum skill of media literacy.

I truly hope the topics I raised on the research can be an alert and a contribution to the discussion on what kind of information ecosystem we will have in the future. And, additionally, about how journalism is being reshaped a multidisciplinary activity which is one of the mainstays of freedom of expression and democracy.

Image by: U.S. Department of State

Ricardo Gandour is director of journalism at CBN News Radio Brazilian Network and associate professor of journalism at ESPM School, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Follow him @rgandour.