The drumbeat of writing from journalism institutions, press freedom monitors, and academia about the sorry state of the news business is a familiar rhythm by now. Sometime in the last decade of the 20th century—roughly when the internet began "democratizing" the publishing industry—the news business model hit the skids, and the downhill slide has only seemed to gather speed.
Now, a series of reports on press freedom, propaganda, and the health of the news business confirms that the free press, which is as important in many ways to the health of democracy as free elections, is in dire trouble.
In the wake of a news cycle that saw millions of people killed by a pandemic, a hardening of the ideological competition raging between China and the United States, and the attempt by a U.S. president to use media to discredit his own democracy, the news business is riding the same downward trajectory of democracy itself. Reports that have generally tracked the media's struggles in incremental terms in recent years now show an industry and craft that has hit rock bottom in terms of its ability to fund itself, its influence on political debate, the scope and quality of its output, and the esteem in which it is held by the public.
The assessments that comprise this bad new story come from varied sources, and not all focus exclusively on the news business. Freedom House, for instance, takes a more macro approach, and since the late 1970s, it has provided an annual health report on global democracy. Its Freedom in the World 2021 report chronicles a deep gash in the bulwarks that protect societies around the world from dictatorship and noted that widespread attacks by governments on the credibility of the news media had played a large role in this erosion.
"Rulers and propagandists in authoritarian states have always pointed to America's domestic flaws to deflect attention from their own abuses, but the events of the past year will give them ample new fodder for this tactic, and the evidence they cite will remain in the world's collective memory for a long time to come," the report says. Cision, a media research company best known for its PR Newswire division, notes the same trend in its 2021 Global State of the Media report, decrying the undermining of the objective media in the West. Cision polled more than 2,700 journalists (including this one) from 15 countries and found deep discouragement over waning public trust and the ability of governments to circumvent the context that the traditional media brings to a story by using social media or withholding access to critical outlets.
The World Press Freedom Index, an annual offering from Reporters Without Borders, echoes these findings, reporting a "dramatic deterioration in people's access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage."
In this great topography of disinformation, befuddled, manipulated, and harried citizens have little hope of discerning truth from lies.
"There are also real dangers lurking here for news organisations that invest in extensive newsgathering operations and expect to establish trust with users merely on the basis of the quality of their journalism or the transparency of their methods," concludes an April 2021 report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
The Reuters Institute report points up what many of those in the news media have known for years: The global public tends to judge media brands more from the perspective of whether they like the news they're getting than on any perceived competence, news-gathering methodology, or pursuit of objectivity. Put simply, objectivity sinks like a stone these days, and the sensationalism and partisan tone of most news organizations are a market response to that fact. The knock-on effect on public trust and democratic debate is clear to see.
To that end, Edelman, the global public relations giant, has published its Trust Barometer since 2012 and found this year that public trust in media of all kinds fell to record lows. Only 53 percent of people surveyed in 27 disparate nations—from China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to Norway, South Africa, and the United States—expressed trust in the traditional media (as compared with search engines, social media, and owned media). Scores for social media were far lower, but the trend since 2012 is depressing and unmistakably negative.
Meanwhile, physical attacks on and arrests of journalists are skyrocketing. Once confined mostly to conflict and authoritarian states, this is now very much a phenomenon in conflict-free and democratic states, too. The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a consortium of worthy news-focused groups like the Columbia Journalism Review, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Poynter Institute, reported 440 incidents of physical attacks on journalists in the United States in 2020, up from 35 a year prior.
Some of this, of course, must be laid at the feet of the news business itself, which has increasingly put the emphasis on business.
The tale of economic woe is familiar. News-gathering operations once supported by the revenues generated by classified ads, help wanted sections, stock listings, subscription sales, and general advertising, woke up too late to the fact that the internet would make all of that go away. Craigslist, Angie's List, and other digital innovations punched a hole in the business side of news, and upstart websites and predatory aggregators like Google News and Yahoo News stole eyeballs and made people wonder why they should pay to have a newspaper thrown onto their driveway every day.
"Information wants to be free," declared supposed visionaries back in the early days of the internet. Yet this vision, rather than ushering in a digital utopia, actually unleased a flotilla of crap to rival the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. What unmediated blogs, so-called citizen journalism, and desktop publishing have actually wrought is quite the opposite of democracy. It's a world of propaganda, of unabashed lies told in the name of political and economic agendas rather than the now discredited and mocked pursuit of objectivity.
In the frantic effort to keep the aspidistra flying, a lot of things went out the window: investigative journalism, foreign news bureaus, the separation between marketing and news management, the quest for the holy grail of objective coverage. Yet a quarter century since online news really began eating traditional journalism's lunch, the search for yield hasn't yielded much in the way of sustainable revenue.
From a business perspective, things look glum. In the United States, a 2020 report by the Pew Research Center notes that from 2008 to 2019, overall newsroom employment in the United States dropped by 23 percent. While the losses were less acute in radio and television, together with the shift away from objective reporting, this has seriously impacted the quality of fact-based journalism on offer.
So-called digital-native outlets offer a bright spot but not quite a silver lining. These newsrooms, which range from Infowars to more august publications, actually expanded during that period, more than doubling employment from 7,400 workers to about 16,100 in 2019. But few uphold standards of objectivity or pursue the kind of beat reporting and investigative journalism most relevant to bringing accountability to government, business, and other institutions. By and large, they're clickbait machines, sports outfits, and digital entertainment rags.
The inability of humans to distinguish between propaganda and news was not a problem that global intellectuals might have identified as existential at the turn of the millennium. Indeed, if anything, the assumption of the great and good was that the great disaggregation of media and information could only add fuel to what—in those naive post-Cold War years—looked like the unstoppable march of freedom and democracy.
Michael Moran is an author, documentarian, and commentator on global affairs and a senior executive at Microshare, a global Smart Buildings data intelligence and sustainability firm.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement