Journalism is now opinion-based — not news-based
More and more in American journalism, we’re hearing opinions in news that look and sound more like a “Dear Diary” entry than the facts of a story. This is fueling mistrust from readers and viewers just looking find out what happened without being preached to.
As the infamous quote by American author Simone Elkeles goes, “opinions are like a**holes, everyone has one, but they think each other’s stink.”
The latest evidence of the opinion trend comes from RAND Corporation, a California-based non-profit, non-partisan think tank and its recent report around objectivity, or lack thereof, in American media today.
Journalism in the U.S. “has gradually shifted away from objective news and offers more opinion-based content that appeals to emotion and relies heavily on argumentation and advocacy,” reads the report.
For those who follow and read the news on a daily basis, this isn’t a shocking conclusion. Feelings couched as “perspective” continue to permeate news in print and television alike.
“Our research provides quantitative evidence for what we all can see in the media landscape: Journalism in the U.S. has become more subjective and consists less of the detailed event- or context-based reporting that used to characterize news coverage,” says Jennifer Kavanagh, lead author of the report and senior political scientist at RAND.
“News consumers can now see how the news has changed over the years and keep that in mind when making choices about which media outlets to rely on for news,” she also notes.
The RAND report isn’t some snapshot of a week or a month of watching cable news, either. Researchers analyzed content from 15 print and television outlets nearly three decades (1989 to 2017).
Representing the print side was The New York Times, Washington Post and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, while CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox and MSNBC were analyzed on the TV front. Digital journalism was represented by Politico, The Blaze, Breitbart News, BuzzFeed Politics, The Daily Caller and The Huffington Post.
“The findings point to a gradual and subtle shift over time and between old and new media toward a more subjective form of journalism that is grounded in personal perspective,” reads RAND’s conclusion.
The RAND Corp. research follows a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center that underscored the challenge of determining the difference between factual and opinion-based reporting.
For this study, 5,035 adult Americans participants were provided five factual statements, including ones such as, “Spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. Federal budget,” and five opinion statements, including “Democracy is the greatest form of government.”
In the end, just 26 percent of the adults surveyed correctly identified all five factual statements as factual, according to the study, and just 35 percent identified all five opinion statements as opinion.
Pew also found that participants “were more likely to classify both factual and opinion statements as factual when they appealed most to their side.”
Appealing most to their side, yes. That’s largely what cable news has become: A safe spaces of opinion, oftentimes disguised as straight news. There is a constant effort to confirm the viewer’s worldview and biases. It is a discussion closed off to hearing non-partisan perspective views or news negative to its preferred side, candidate or party.
The latest example of opinion represented as straight news came during the biggest story of the Trump era: The Mueller investigation and final report.
Ultimately, Mueller said there was no collusion between Trump, Trump campaign associates and Russia, which flew in the face of many things we heard over the past two years.
Mueller’s team, unlike most Washington entities, did not leak, meaning the sober analysis and punditry we heard over the past two years had been speculation based on bad sources or those with nefarious intentions provided to reporters and hosts who were all too happy to swallow whatever was fed to them, like a frenzy of seagulls at the beach.
The Mueller conclusion has damaged the news business, perhaps permanently. Since the report was submitted to the attorney general in late March, a drop in numbers can be seen across the board for most publications and broadcast outlets alike.
Perhaps people are fatigued, perhaps they’re tired of being fed false information, regardless of the intention of the messenger.
In April, for example, CNN lost 26 percent of its total viewers when compared to the same month in 2018. MSNBC lost 14 percent of its total viewers. Fox News’s total viewers remained the same.
This happened despite a very active news cycle and more Democrats — including Vice President Joe Biden and media sensation Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indi. — jumping into the presidential race. During this time, we also saw the full release of the Mueller report, which was relatively favorable to President Trump and therefore not the kind of news those on the left wanted to tune in to hear, thereby potentially leading to the decreases.
Confirmation bias. It was described by USA Today as a little-known phenomenon. Now it’s business model. And to those fueling this business model, they don’t even realize they’re living in the very safe spaces they otherwise mock.
Opinions. Everyone has one. The problem now is, even those sitting at anchor desks paid not to provide them are doing so. It is turning the media ecosystem into yet another unneeded swamp of confusion.
Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of “WOR Tonight with Joe Concha and Lis Wiehl” weeknights on 710-WOR in New York. Follow Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV.