When I was younger, I worked as a journalist for almost 7 years. It was a very useful time of my life, but I was happy I got out fast, and didn’t pursue a “career” there. I didn’t have enough time to get a clear image of what’s really going on in the field, but something wasn’t clicking. Immediately after that, I started my first business (while being under 30), and although it was a pretty rough journey for the next 10 years, it was well worth it.
Fast forward 20 years and here we are, in a world completely different from the one I was moving in, and yet so similar. Just like back then, the amount of information surrounding us is overwhelming, and that affects our life fundamentally. Just because we have access to more information, we tend to believe we know more, and we have access to more “truth”.
I already wrote how information inflation equals truth deflation. Today I’d like to go a bit deeper and see how media, our main source of information, is split in various “flavors”, and how each of them affects us.
A Few Basic Reminders
A media company is just another business. It needs money to pay for its expenses, and it generates money by selling a product, which, in this case, is reliable information. The actual business model may take many forms. For instance, they may sell a subscription bulletin, or they may use advertisers that will pay them if their content generates enough attention.
But the bottom line is that a media company is a private, for profit entity, just like any other business. This is fundamental.
On top of that, the information field is free to play for everyone, not only media companies. There are other types of information businesses which sell different information products. For instance, advertising companies are selling stories which aim at increasing sales for other businesses – they are selling “clients”. Lobby companies are selling votes for political entities, by influencing the public opinion using an array of techniques.
What we call “media” and these other types of information businesses are often overlapping.
Main Stream Media
We already established that media sells reliable information, that’s its product.
But what it is “reliable information”? If we define it like a piece of information that can be verified, there are very few areas where this happens. Most of them are utility news, like weather and traffic. If a media company will consistently sell news that its raining, when its sunny, then it will be very easy to verify this. Equally, when there’s a traffic jam and they announce it’s clear, the information can be deemed as “unreliable”, so the company product will be low quality. People won’t buy it.
But here’s where it starts to get interesting. For the rest of the areas, the vast majority of people aren’t really looking for reliable information, in the sense that it can be factually verifiable. They look for comfort information. They look for validation of their ideas, values, perceptions, in a word, of their biases.
When it’s not immediately verifiable, truth is a flexible notion. It gives us room to maneuver. Because we don’t get an immediate feedback loop, we start fantasizing about what the truth might be. In time, this creates a specific state, in which we tend to move in the direction of the information source that’s validating most of our biases. Even when we are confronted with reality, and we are presented some verifiable form of truth, we still have some doubts, like “ok, I see it how it is, but maybe, just maybe, there is a chance that it’s not like that?”.
Now add to the mix the overlapping that I talked above: between media and other information businesses. There are advertising agencies, propaganda outlets, lobby companies, all competing on the same field. Out of this mix, a thing called “trend” is emerging.
A “trend” is a specific mix of information which coagulates around it a big, consistent mass of information consumers. A trend doesn’t have a “negative” / “positive” connotation, it just aggregates people around it. Some of them are indeed perceived as “positive”, when there is, for instance, some increase in general wealth. But most of them are mostly negative: accidents, fears, unhappy events.
As you probably started to understand by now, the role of “media” is to mediate (pun intended) between all these trends, and the facts. Alas, because of the commercial element, if there’s a conflict between a trend and the truth (which is the reason why many trends are created, to conceal, or embellish some uncomfortable truth) media should chose truth, right?
The vast majority of customers is on the trend side. So mainstream media has to choose the trend, otherwise it goes bankrupt.
This choice of the trend against truth is made in many ways. Mainstream media cannot afford to fabricate lies, because sooner or later, when those “truths” are verified, its customers will see if they were indeed truths or lies. So, most of the time mainstream media chooses the trend by selection, ignorance, subtle nuances given to wording and so on.
For instance, it may choose a lot of news about climate change. Climate change is something that’s inherent to the climate, it has happened before humans, and it will happen after them. But a recent trend (we’re not discussing why this trend emerged, maybe some other time) linked climate change to human activity, pretending that there is a significant impact of human activity on climate. This is very hard to prove, but it’s very easy to instill, as a trend. People react better when you serve them “truths” that confirm their biases, remember? So mainstream media chooses to present a lot of these news, to ride this trend, and simply ignore other information (which may debunk the popular “truth”, or at least give an alternative perspective to the main trend).
Another example about how mainstream media chooses the trend over the truth is in this very popular wording for machine learning: “artificial intelligence”. In certain contexts, for certain types of tasks, you may infer that machine learning is somehow similar to intelligence. But it’s not even remotely that, it’s not “intelligent” in any way. Machine learning is simply a way to pair enormous amounts of data with certain algorithms, given some in and out requirements for the whole workflow. It’s something that computers did before “artificial intelligence”. And yet, the main trend is formed around artificial intelligence, because it confirms a certain class of biases (most of them political, in the area of “robots are stealing our jobs”).
In short, mainstream media follows trends that are confirming consumer biases, for economical reasons. If it doesn’t do that, it dies.
Ok, but what about the “truth”? Are there any types of media out there which are reporting the truth? Or, in other words, can we live in a world in which truth is unbiasedly reported?
The answer to these question must wait until the next article, which will be published tomorrow, and in which I’ll try to describe what I understand by “side stream media” and “down stream media”.