Thomas Jefferson once famously — and bitterly — declared, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” Though stated when the then President of the United States (POTUS) had grown fatigued by the incessant news of his personal pursuits and rumors during his candidacy, the quote had been resurrected with vigor in response to “The Great Flood” of fake news and distrust in the media. Remarkably, the wariness towards media has been skewed disproportionately towards the traditional media forms, while the social media networks have surged in both popularity from its users.
Traditional media, defined as typical one-way news providers including television networks, newspapers, and radio, struggle to maintain its foothold as household news sources. Its previous advantages that derived from the universality of the vehicle through which it transfers news have disappeared as less and less people watch television, listen to radio, or peruse physical newspapers. As its relatively consistent and loyal consumer base — and ergo revenue — dwindles, traditional media’s only edge is the depth and reliability of their coverage.
The layers of quality control woven into traditional television and newspapers should theoretically grant them the most respect and credence. Yet the Edelman Trust Barometer, a gauge of public trust in government, financial, and media institutions published by the public relations consultancy Edelman, revealed that media’s credibility hit rock bottom since the financial crisis in 2008 from 51% last year to 43% expressing confidence in media. Many would attribute the sharp decline to the US or UK after the election of Donald Trump as POTUS and Brexit respectively, yet the greatest drops in media trust was shown in Ireland, Australia, Canada, and Columbia, nations who had not been the bellwethers of well-known disputes. The data correlates with how 75% of the 28 countries polled had been categorized as “‘distrustful’ of government, business, media, and non-governmental organizations”. Additionally, the decrease in trust had been continuous over the last decade. Thus, the data implies that the deterioration of traditional media’s power isn’t necessarily due to the rampancy of controversial issues; instead, the public views media with disdain as it does with other long-established government and financial institutions as an elitist clique enveloped by unequal power and self- interest.
Perhaps as a corollary of such attitude, for the first time, the public preferred social media and search engines over traditional media for its news source. The Pew Research Center stated that over 62% of Americans received news from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Reddit. Globally, 51% of people with online access used social media as their primary source of reports, revealed The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism research in 2016. Leading the pack is Facebook with an overwhelming 44% of users using the website for news.
Facebook, standing at the pinnacle of media influence, wields a power stronger than any single newspaper could through its customers’ thumbs. The ease of scrolling through short, usually provocative excerpts of the articles pervades the news consumption pattern of much of the public, especially the younger generations. But the greatest appeal, as well as problem, of the newer forms of media isn’t just its accessibility and responsiveness — the customizability of the feed contributes much to its popularity. Media accessed through social media becomes an echo chamber, its algorithm allowing one’s opinions to bounce off of intransigent walls of similar-minded people and ideas. A 2016 survey done by the Pew Research Center also showed that only 56% of the people using links to access news recollected the name of the news site, a worrying trend that propagates click-bait articles that thrive on the conciseness and promptness of social media.
It would be imprudent to put traditional media forms on a pedestal as unbiased, immaculate role models; many papers, stations, and networks remain polarized and in search of sensational news to entice the hungry audience into consuming its contents without discretion. Social media redistributes the power to the consumer, who has an expansive choice of news to read. The two-way aspect of social media generates fecund discussions, and quick transfer of new information has allowed individuals to be more active and receptive than ever. Social media became the connections between the isolated nodes of news, forming an invisible but potent network amongst people, ideas, and societies.
However, social media is also the untamed “wild west” of information, full of unrestrained outlaws and renegades dueling to gain digital terrain. The price tag of the autonomy of media consumption entails the necessity of self- protection, or self-filtering, in all forms of media, traditional and especially modern. A conscious and critical mind is the weapon to combat the “unlawful” kind when treading the unfamiliar lands of news. Even so, a sheriff is needed in the town; the legal regulatory matters of both the new and old forms of media should be the next step in abetting abuse of the modern media.