"We’ve moved into an age in which the old rules of journalism no longer seem to apply. The lines between fact and fiction are blurry. That has left much of the traditional media in a terrible bind." - Eden Pontz
From The Noodler
Journalism is defined as “the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information.” News sheets that recorded important events began circulating as early as 59 BCE in ancient Rome. In the US, prior to the 19th Century, apprenticeships were the main form of training for journalists, until Columbia University founded the first graduate program in journalism in 1912 to establish both training and standards for journalists. The Oxford Dictionary defines “fact” as, “a thing that is known or proved to be true,” and as “the truth about events as opposed to interpretation.” While an “opinion” is “a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.” But what happens when lines begin to blur between the two and our collective understanding of these two words begins to shift?
To explore this duality and some of the implications surrounding it, we reached out to award-winning journalist Eden Pontz. An Executive Producer of news-gathering at CNN’s New York Bureau for over a decade, Eden has reported, produced, and written, on health, technology, entertainment, and other topics. She is currently the Executive Producer and Digital Content Director at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication whose mission it is to help parents raise teens who are prepared to thrive through research-backed content and information that promote positive youth development and foster strong family connections.
Not a day goes by when I don’t get a slew of messages on my “Bad Asses” text thread group. A group of friends inhabits it – women journalists who worked together at a large, international cable network. We were correspondents, producers, editors and writers. Journalism is still in our blood even though we now work as marketers, executives, filmmakers, independent journalists, wives, partners, mothers, caring friends, and more. While we may have moved onto other professions, we still realize the value of media and communication in our lives. We also find it stressful and overwhelming and some days wish the media bombardment would just stop coming at us. But our texts inform each other of news, examining the different stories we’ve come upon from a wide-reaching range of sources.
This duplexity is leading to chaos because we are living in completely different media ecosystems and basic facts are no longer agreed upon.
We do our own fact-checking as we wrestle with the ways the media covered a particular story. Perhaps what bothers us most is the way that a story can be covered in two completely different ways depending on where the information is coming from. People are left to choose their own reality because they are able to find a source of media that reinforces what they want to hear. This duplexity is leading to chaos because we are living in completely different media ecosystems and basic facts are no longer agreed upon.
Long gone are the days of our parents watching Walter Cronkite, appointment viewing on the big three television networks, with multiple newspapers and magazine subscriptions delivered to the door. Cable changed the television landscape. Newspaper subscriptions began dwindling. By 2010, Americans had their pick of 24-hour news channels, films, reality shows, and more. The internet had found its footing and took some of the limelight away from television. Viewers became their own assignment editors, picking and choosing what they wanted to watch when they wanted to watch with the tap of a key.
“You used to have a minimum of 24 hours, usually more, to put together a piece on something important. Now, things are turned around and put out for the public to digest before we even know if what we're reporting is accurate, much less having the time to have people sit around in a hopefully diverse newsroom and talk about the coverage to analyze whether the direction that’s being taken is a good one or not.” - Rose Arce
In the last decade, things began changing more rapidly, profoundly affecting how we live our lives and get our news. Social media supercharged our information flow and filled our schedules. From Facebook to Instagram to TikTok – everyone became a content creator. And with ever-sleeker design and lower prices, smartphones became ubiquitous – by the end of 2019 over 80% of the U.S. population owned a smartphone and the information, news, and content created on them began flowing 24-7 and was often done on the go.
These days, the pace of traditional journalism is also increasing at lightning speed. Rose Arce is Vice President at Soledad O’Brien Productions. She worked at the New York Daily News early in her journalism career. She was used to turning stories around in short order – but not short by today’s standards. She reflects, “You used to have a minimum of 24 hours, usually more, to put together a piece on something important. Now, things are turned around and put out for the public to digest before we even know if what we're reporting is accurate, much less having the time to have people sit around in a hopefully diverse newsroom and talk about the coverage to analyze whether the direction that’s being taken is a good one or not.”
Today, while trained, traditional journalists are still in the mix, an influx of content creators, framed as “citizen journalists” is tipping the scale. They aren’t schooled to examine the facts or ask particular questions. They consider themselves experts since the content they are making is based upon what’s happening in their lives.
Our journalism professors taught us it was the media’s role to “tell both sides'' of a story. We asked questions, reported what we’d learned, and examined the facts as they came from people with different points of view. We took time to check out what was true and what wasn’t. Then, our job was to inform the audience based on the facts we’d discovered and let them decide. Today, while trained, traditional journalists are still in the mix, an influx of content creators, framed as “citizen journalists” is tipping the scale. They aren’t schooled to examine the facts or ask particular questions. They consider themselves experts since the content they are making is based upon what’s happening in their lives. Many haven’t learned the importance of considering or presenting the full context or finding first-hand sources to whatever they may be covering. They have not been trained on the morals, ethics, or objectivity necessary for responsible news reporting. Instead, they have been conditioned and incentivized to provide a constant feed of information churned out as quickly as possible to get as many eyeballs, likes, and comments as they can. Social media algorithms keep those users engaged and coming back for similar content, sometimes headed down a virtual rabbit hole of misinformation.
We’ve moved into an age in which the old rules of journalism no longer seem to apply. The lines between fact and fiction are blurry. That has left much of the traditional media in a terrible bind. How can they compete to be factual in their reporting without sensationalizing a story and still get people interested in what they are saying? Dana Garrett, a former producer who now runs Trailhead Films, a film production company working with nonprofits, says she feels for the conundrum faced by journalists today. “How can you fairly tell both sides of an issue, when one side is basing their position on ‘alternative facts?’ If you point out that one side is based on facts and one is not, then you are accused of being biased, or an advocacy journalist. It’s almost a no win situation.” Not agreeing on facts prevents us from being able to take action. Instead, we live in these two parallel universes with a similar wall. So, what can we do to break that wall and get through to the other side?
But when it comes to getting crucial factual information out at times, she [Ronni Berke] wonders whether we are affected by a “blurring of the truth” or whether there are two alternative bubbles that people live in. One bubble being the people who believe in the truth, and the other being people who think anything they disagree with is made up.
Susan Candiotti is a former National Correspondent and now an independent journalist. She splits her time between Florida and Kentucky, where she often meets and speaks with people with differing views on a range of topics. She acknowledges it’s become harder to encourage people to be careful about where they get their news, how they verify the news, and the sources of their information. “I have found that it helps me engage with people about different subjects in the grocery store line, out in the street, or with friends.” She just asks people, “Hey, what do you think about this?” She does so to hear what people are saying about different subjects and not necessarily to try to change anyone's mind. She feels it’s important to keep asking questions. “‘Oh, really? That's interesting. Where did you hear that from? Did you ever hear about this as well?’ I try to get people to react to different things without criticizing them at the same time.”
For Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician who also appears on TV and in print regularly, responsible reporting requires people to push themselves to explain context and nuance. She says journalists must seek out the stories of people on the ground even when “...they may not be the loudest voices, and not necessarily the voices with the largest reach.” As a doctor, she has concerns about people missing the nuances of important medical-related details because too much of our media has become oversimplified.
Ronni Berke is the Executive Director of The LAM Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports finding treatments and a cure for a rare disease affecting women. She draws upon her journalism skills to help market the foundation and raise support. But when it comes to getting crucial factual information out at times, she wonders whether we are affected by a “blurring of the truth” or whether there are two alternative bubbles that people live in. One bubble being the people who believe in the truth, and the other being people who think anything they disagree with is made up.
Gallup and the Knight Foundation have been covering the decline in trust in the media since 2017. Their latest joint survey, “American Views 2022: Trust, Media, and Democracy” released in January 2023, found only 26% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the news media, the lowest level they’ve recorded in the past five years. Conversely, 53% hold an unfavorable view. Only 23% of those surveyed believe most national news organizations care about the best interests of their readers, viewers, and listeners. Arce doesn’t hesitate to say, “We as members of the media constantly acknowledge that the world is fascinating and that things are changing and demands are being made. Yet, we don't seem to spend any time at all asking why. So what do we do about that? How do we change ourselves? The result is that we've lost the trust of many that consume media.”
“There's few filters for misinformation going out. It can spread easily. We've seen so many lies spread on social media. The volume of lies and their exposure helps perpetuate the misinformation.” - Mary Snow
Berke views the state of the news media as an ongoing crisis. “You need to be informed because you need to know why things happen every day, and you only find out by reading the news, or watching or listening—the problem is that people may or may not believe you anymore,” she says, and as a result, they may not read or watch you. Mainstream media has lost some of its power because of the many choices people can turn to instead. Berke believes people are still motivated by personal stories. They love to hear them and be moved. So, when she wants to help others learn, she looks to tell people’s stories—whether they are hurt, impacted, in trouble, or doing well. She uses this technique as a mantra–look to connect people to the bigger story. She is concerned that the connection will be harder if people don’t believe what’s being said. Another concern, storytelling in general, is in decline in traditional media. It’s much cheaper and easier to provide “talking heads” as experts on a topic. But, that can backfire and reinforce a particular bias if the audience doesn’t see an individual story that helps them see a fuller picture.
As a mother of a teen, I can’t help but have concerns about what the media, and all of its duplexity, will mean for our children as they move into young adulthood.
Perhaps the media must do a better job considering people’s emotions. Mary Snow is a former broadcast journalist turned polling analyst for Quinnipiac University. She appreciates the role of social media in helping inform people of issues they need to know about. But, she says too often, emotion often drives content and that can cause problems. “There's few filters for misinformation going out. It can spread easily. We've seen so many lies spread on social media. The volume of lies and their exposure helps perpetuate the misinformation.” She’s concerned about how on social media, excessive emotion, information, opinions, and even lies seem to be treated as “general information” by many. In the Gallup/Knight Foundation survey, Americans reported having difficulty in sorting out facts and being well-informed, with 61% saying the increase in information makes it harder to be well-informed and 50% saying there is so much bias in the news media that it is often difficult to sort out the facts. Other findings revealed that those with low emotional trust in national news are likelier to believe the government interferes with news organizations’ reporting.
As a mother of a teen, I can’t help but have concerns about what the media, and all of its duplexity, will mean for our children as they move into young adulthood. I’m not alone. Snow has a teenage son, and she’s concerned that he can’t always discern fact from fiction, as the two seem to blend quite often. “So much of the information he gets is from social media. We've had hard conversations about this. The schools he's gone to started at an early age, teaching kids to be careful about their sources of information. But social media is a powerful force in these kids’ lives. Especially with AI now and videos that can be created that are so realistic (but are actually fake.) It's pretty scary.”
“A big message behind our Standby Teens campaign is that two things can be true at once. What can be true is that there's a mental health crisis. What is also true is that kids can be deeply resilient. But when you tell only half of the truth in the media, it creates a distorted reality.” - Dr. Ken Ginsburg
AI, or artificial intelligence, is the next big change-maker. To say it’s moving fast is an understatement. It’s moving so quickly that hi-tech bigwigs like Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak came together and wrote an open letter urging caution in its development and asking for a pause. A portion of the letter read, “Powerful AI systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable.” But for many smaller, everyday tasks, like transcribing an interview in a few seconds with words recorded as accurately as they were spoken is a big deal. Independent journalist Deborah Feyerick appreciates its potential in the field of journalism. “Being able to search for things more quickly and efficiently allows a journalist to get the context they need sooner to include in the story they are working to tell.” But she concedes that with AI there also come big risks. “You may get a lot of things that artificial intelligence begins to recycle as fact when they’re not. That’s like a potential propaganda machine in which if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth…It could go sideways pretty quickly!”
How can we slow down this fast-track to false information? Multiple colleges across the country, like the University of Montana, offer courses with titles such as “Calling Bullshit.” The idea is to teach information literacy and help people become better “sharers and consumers” of information. It’s worth noting that when the course was originally titled “News Literacy” back in 2021, there were only 20 students. But with the more “clickbait-y” title offered this fall, more than 100 kids have enrolled. One student who took the course said this about a duplexity they have to learn to contend with, “The one big thing we learned is not to inherently trust the media, but also not to be paranoid about the media.”
Among my group of “bad ass” gals, the future of the news media looks alarming if something doesn’t change soon and on a larger scale. We run the risk of the cultural fissure growing wider and everyone becoming more siloed in what they see and hear.
As kids grow up in a world where truth is getting harder to determine, they are going to need the skills to learn to navigate it and keep themselves informed. My colleague, Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician and Co-Founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, thinks media can be a tool. The Center recently began a campaign surrounding the state of mental health and well-being in young people. Part of the inspiration behind the campaign came from an overwhelming barrage of mental health-related crisis headlines and mixed messages in the media. Ginsburg says those headlines disempower teens and the adults in their lives. “A big message behind our Standby Teens campaign is that two things can be true at once. What can be true is that there's a mental health crisis. What is also true is that kids can be deeply resilient. But when you tell only half of the truth in the media, it creates a distorted reality.” He explains, “If you give various media to your child and say, ‘Learn to use it,’ they might absorb undermining or dangerous messages. But if you use the media and journalism as a tool, you can discuss it, and ask things like, ‘What can I learn? What is the truth or not the truth? How am I being manipulated? How do I tell the difference? What are the biases in this story? How are you going to write your own story?’ Adolescence is about learning to write your own story and not assuming other people's versions of who you might be.”
So, where do we go from here in the news media? Among my group of “bad ass” gals, the future of the news media looks alarming if something doesn’t change soon and on a larger scale. We run the risk of the cultural fissure growing wider and everyone becoming more siloed in what they see and hear. Both Garrett and Candiotti foresee the nightly news going away as it is now. Newspapers will stop printing at some point as well, and just about everything will move online. While Garrett doesn’t think that’s the most terrible thing, she is concerned that with so many sources out there, the ones that people have easiest access to are the ones they will gravitate toward. Sources that move behind a paywall may not be as widely seen. With that, it will become harder to understand “what’s real” and for journalists to report the truth because the truth will continue to become more partisan.
For Arce, the future of news looks like a war zone full of a lot of self-interested players competing for attention from the public. The best players, she notes, may not always win.
Maybe it’s just a pipe dream, but Snow envisions and hopes for a system to be created in the future in which, just as you have ratings on shows and movies, media will be marked and verified to reveal what the source is, where it came from, its authenticity, and more. Other predictions include all the major news organizations transitioning into streaming services as cable cuts the cord for good and apps become the way to livestream stories. We won’t need our televisions because we have computers and phones. The trend of independent news sites will grow because so many have access to start their own channels, and the ability to videotape something quickly, and easily. And be on the lookout for more customized programming, in which consumers will have a stronger say over what they're going to view in terms of the content.
For Arce, the future of news looks like a war zone full of a lot of self-interested players competing for attention from the public. The best players, she notes, may not always win. “I think it's also a universe in which the big players that do have a lot of credibility will have to open themselves up to more criticism and take that criticism more seriously. Or they're going to lose to competitors that are not as thoughtful, but who do as much reporting with less regard for the facts. So, if somebody tells a big website, newspaper, or television station, that they aren't covering enough stories about (fill in the blank) they should listen, rather than be defensive, because people will just choose another source of information whether it's true or not. They want to read or listen to stories about people like themselves. They ignore at their own peril, disseminating information to groups that may not reflect the people in their newsroom.”
“News is fundamental to how we live and evolve as a human race. You need news, because it informs you of the world and what is going on around you.” - Deborah Feyerick
I can’t help but go back to my journalistic roots. In solid journalism, the concept of “bad in bad out, good in good out” remains. I watch, read, and listen to plenty of outlets whose partisan coverage I may not agree with to help ensure I understand what information their followers are getting. For those who are training to be journalists and members of the media, yes, you can learn something from school. But learning the craft takes getting out in the world and seeing how things work. You must ask many questions, and you don’t always stop at the first answer you get. It takes talking to real people to ensure the context and the emotional connection that helps bring in viewers and keep them interested. We can use technology to help inform and confirm information if you can’t be there. But there’s nothing like meeting with someone one on one at the scene of an unfolding event. Being able to do your research, listen, size them up, and work to ensure your source is credible makes all the difference in how a story is reported.
It’s still true that people love to hate the press. But as Feyerick makes clear, “News is fundamental to how we live and evolve as a human race. You need news, because it informs you of the world and what is going on around you. Without news, we go back to several hundred years ago, when there wasn't really any kind of formal news. And there's this breakdown into tribal areas in which nobody's communicating, and you don't understand what's going on. I don't think we can put the genie back in the bottle. We must have news, we just have to figure out how to continue to do it at a level so people continue to be informed.”
Executive Producer & Digital Content Director, Center for Parent & Teen Communication
Eden Pontz is an award-winning journalist and media professional. She is currently Executive Producer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication. She was EP of news-gathering at CNN’s New York Bureau for over a decade. She has reported, produced, and written, covering health, technology, entertainment, and other topics.