Monday, February 6, 2012

Don't blame something that doesn't exist


In some circles, it’s popular to say “the media” do this and “the media” are responsible for that.

The truth is, there is no “the media.” There is no “mainstream media” and not even “drive-by media,” two other popular bogeymen in some circles.
           
The news and information business is so fragmented today that it simply can’t be referred to as “the” anything.
           
For example, when many baby boomers were growing up, national TV news came from three places -- ABC, NBC and CBS. Today, only 22 percent of Americans name the TV networks as their top source for news according to the Pew Research Center, down from 30 percent in 2002. Cable news accounts for the largest share --36 percent -- down from 44 percent in 2002. Local TV news has remained steady over that time at 16 percent. In short, the entire TV news audience is dropping, but the networks are dropping the fastest.
           
Pew also notes that fewer people are reading print newspapers while more people are reading online newspapers (total readership hovers around 40 percent every day), and more people are turning to online sources other than TV and newspapers.
           
Ironically, another Pew study shows that as the number of news and information sources grows exponentially, consumers trust the information less and less. For example, two-thirds of Americans don’t trust news organizations in general and that number is going up about as fast as the number of available news sources. However, Americans do tend to trust news organizations they use most, just as most Americans don’t trust Congress but do trust their own elected Congressperson.
           
Back to my main point, there is no entity that can be referred to as “the media.” I was reminded of this recently when a conservative organization calling itself the Media Research Center complained, under a breathless "bias alert" title, that the TV networks aren’t covering a current dispute between Catholic colleges and the Obama Administration over requirements to provide contraception services under the new health care law.
           
I have no idea whether the Media Research Center is right, but it almost doesn’t matter -- only one in five Americans is paying any attention to network news. For all I know, the networks may be catering to a center-left audience as the Media Research Center charges, just as various cable outlets cater to the left, center, right, far left, far right and all niche audiences in-between. The truth is that there’s precious little journalism going on among national TV “news organizations.”
           
So, getting back to what is becoming ever more obvious and urgent -- we must take great care when selecting our information sources, we must demand that they do better, and we should not rely on any single source for our news. Just as important, blaming “the media” for anything simply doesn’t make any sense.