The entire world is experiencing a rise in the creation of disinformation and a decline of the creation of reliable news coverage. What is contributing to this change? The rapid sharing and creation of web ‘news’ across various platforms is impacting the news industry. First, a huge portion of advertising revenue which used to go directly to media companies is being diverted to large tech companies who share news but don’t produce it. Second, in the fake news era, public skepticism has increased. Third, traditional media has changed formats to be available online which enables less reliable sources to create content that mimics traditional news while not being credible (Stecula, 2021). And lastly, social media has made it very easy to share news. Individuals who may not have had a voice before can now share their opinions widely. This has created an environment where more extreme viewpoints get more attention, and where stories meant to be humorous are taken as reality (Horner et al., 2022).
Before social media newsfeeds, Twitter notifications, and up-to-the minute access to information, people engaged with news very differently. Some read a print newspaper each morning, others waited until the evening news broadcast on television or listened to the radio’s rebroadcast as they drove to work. Regardless of which format they engaged with, in this environment, news and media companies had time to collect, investigate, fact-check, and edit the stories presented (Martin, 2018). This process was not completely flawless. There have always been some circumstances that make information less reliable, breaking news being a good example of this. It is broadcast very quickly, and the time required to investigate and fact-check the reporting is sometimes rushed (WNYC Studios, 2013). A very pertinent example occurred during coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 when news outlets in a panic to get information out published articles that were “exaggerated or just plain wrong” including stories about rape, drowings and robberies (News Literacy Project, n.d., para. 3). It is not unreasonable to say that Internet news, being that it is often reported as soon as it is happening, should also be met with a critical eye.
News Revenues–Paying the Professionals
In the new media environment, traditional news outlets are losing money rapidly as their advertisers turn to Google and Facebook. This has led local and mainstream news outlets to lose profits and consequently eliminate thousands of employees who, as a part of their professions, uphold journalistic and editorial standards (Lindgren, 2020). News media companies are often owned by corporations looking to generate revenue and so, those corporations may cut positions held by high salaried professionals in favour of hiring freelance writers. This has contributed to the disappearance of journalism jobs (Jolly, 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed something very interesting about news consumption. It appears that during times of public crisis, people turn to mainstream news for information. A survey done by Statistics Canada (2020) revealed that, throughout the pandemic, 51.3% of Canadians sought information from news outlets, while 9.8% sought it from social media. What is unusual about this occurrence in 2020, is that at this time, the news industry was being devastated by falling advertising revenues (Lindgren, 2020). In the past, everyone might have paid for their news by subscribing to a local newspaper. However, local TV broadcasting relied mostly on advertising revenue to pay their expenses. continues to fund news content on the Internet. Although it may seem obvious, not many have considered the fact that the news industry has relied on advertising revenue to cover 80-100% of their costs throughout the 20th century (Law, 2021). Subscription fees cover only a small portion of the cost of producing news, and people have come to expect news at a very low price or for free. Presently, the idea of paying for news is not one that people accept easily.
So, where is advertising money going? It’s going to big tech companies (such as Google and Meta) who consume 80% of the online advertising market in Canada-billions of dollars (Jolly, 2021). Many Canadians worry about a lack of reliable national and local news due to the loss of Canadian news publishers, and they should (Jolly, 2021). As more people engage with and share the news on their platforms, tech companies gain more advertisers, and the news outlets producing the content do not. As one writer aptly put it “by producing or linking to articles they don’t create, but earn ad revenue from… these big tech companies seem to deprive news publishers their rightful due” (Gil, 2022, para. 3).
How does an industry in decline survive? The online news industry is in a circumstance of having to ‘give people what they want’ (Stecula, 2021). Often, they must turn to sensational stories that catch people’s attention and encourage them to click on the headline (Stecula, 2021). Advertisers usually pay web companies based on the popularity of a source and ‘clicks’ is one way to measure this. Of course, this leads to ‘clickbait’ headlines which are those that create a strong feeling of emotion in readers, leading them to engage with the story (Suciu, 2020). These trends also impact the information that is reported because journalists and editors will make more money for media outlets if they write stories that are shocking. This is called , which refers to reporting stories that are new and exciting, rather than reporting based on representative statistics (Gibbs & Castillo, 2021, p. 22). For example, plane crashes often make the news even though they are much less frequent than car crashes (Pinker, 2018). Why? Because they are more sensational.
Governments are beginning to develop legislation to deal with these issues, so that news and media companies are no longer ‘cornered’ into creating clickbait headlines. In 2019 the European Union instituted a link tax which requires search engines and social platforms to pay a fee to publishers whose content they host but do not create. In Australia, Google and Meta must hold financial negotiations with the media industry to post their content (Government of Canada, 2022; Woolf, 2022; Gil, 2022). In Spring 2022, the Canadian government introduced legislation to ensure compensation for news media outlets and to sustain local news. Bill C-18 the Online News Act is meant to “ensure that major digital platforms fairly compensate news publishers for their content and enhance fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace…” (Government of Canada, 2022, para. 1). The government also claims that the way news outlets are defined in the bill will aid in curbing the spread of false information online.
Questions have been raised concerning this new bill–critics point to the fact that only wealthy news companies will have the ability to negotiate with big tech companies, leaving smaller news outlets to fall by the wayside, while others question the harms of Big Tech to begin with. Some argue that Google has enabled some news outlets to develop an online following that would not have otherwise occurred (Gil, 2022). Some question the language within the bill itself and suggest that it might actually aid in the spread of disinformation rather than curb it, due to the very loose definition of news outlet which would essentially allow any two-person journalistic operation to negotiate with Big Tech (Woolf, 2022). Another criticism is that government should not be allowed to decide which companies are considered credible journalism or not, as this ignores the principles of a freedom of the press, which in the simplest sense states that the press should be free from interference from the overarching government (Woolf, 2022; Gil, 2022; The Centre for Free Expressions, n.d.). The external meddling that occurs from various sectors who have a stake in media and news leads to various forms of bias within the industry.
2.3.2 Media Bias
Many news organizations have been accused of (favoring one side over another); this is particularly the case in the US where major news networks are thought to be supporters of a specific political party (e.g., Fox News is known to support the Republican party)(Harcup, 2014; Chandler & Munday, 2020). Media bias is present in Canada, too, where journalists or companies may have a bias toward a political party or the company for which they work. There are many aspects of the news industry that introduce bias, some of which are difficult to avoid (even if the news producer wants to). Some examples of inevitable bias include placement of a story and bias by selection and tone. The first refers to where a story is found in the paper. It is more likely that someone will read something on page one or two of a print newspaper, less likely they will get all the way to page eight. Selection and tone refer to the way the writer presents information, applying to what describing words they use to tell the story. For example, saying someone shrieked versus saying someone spoke with emphasis changes the way a person envisions the event or person described. Some forms of bias are unavoidable, but much media bias is systemic, the consequence of factors like ownership.
The companies that own newspapers, news websites and television broadcast stations should also be considered when thinking about bias. In countries like Canada, it is common for large corporations to own multiple media companies. For example, the TorStar corporation owns more than 80 newspapers in Canada (Tattrie, 2019). This poses questions about who pays for news and the impact that has on what is presented to the public. Ownership can affect the independence of the news sources and their staff, including the journalists. The company they work for might impact what news is covered in their communities. In the US, PostMedia owns many as well (Tattrie, 2019). One historical example of problematic ownership centers on the exaggerated and much contested assumption that a newspaper initiated the Spanish-American War. In the late 1800’s, William Randolph Hearst, who owned multiple American newspapers, sought a way to boost his paper’s sales (Giansiracusa, 2021). Hearst knew he would sell more papers if he had something troubling to print such as the US in conflict with another country. He published fake drawings of Cuban officials searching American women, in an attempt to garner support for the war. Soon after these drawings were published, the Spanish-American war began (Giansiracusa, 2021). Although it has been contested by historians that this story could have led to a war, it is an example of the sway that an owner had over what is reported in his newspaper. Hearst purposely published disinformation to make profits. This sort of behavior leads to distrust in all media, not just a single newspaper.
Also consider the fact that some newspapers, or media companies, support particular political parties. This is often called being . Someone who supports a political party’s platform or belief system is politically partisan (Merriam-Webster, n.d.d). If a company is partisan, how might this change the news that is reported? Various fact-checking and bias websites have been created that try to identify the political leaning of news sites. Many of these are freely available. We recommend checking more than one of these websites because the people creating them may also be biased, as they categorize news sites based on their existing beliefs.
2.3.3 Fringe News
Fringe news sources have a similar appearance to mainstream outlets as they publish stories and are formatted to look like traditional news sources. Fringe news is made up of “media outlet[s] that disseminate information that is significantly different from mainstream views” (John Gray Park ’28 Library, 2022, para. 7). This type of news source may also be called alternative media. Here is an example of a fringe news site’s (Westphalian Times, n.d.). Fringe news sites don’t necessarily spread false news, rather they take true information and alter it in a way to meet a specific purpose. You might recall from the last chapter that this is called malinformation. Fringe news is a growing practice in our current information landscape.
Revenue generated by advertisements placed in newspapers, journals, television, and online websites by corporations. This revenue is used by media companies to fund their operations.
Occurs in journalism when news and media outlets report on sensational or captivating stories more than stories that accurately represent happenings in a location or amongst a population.
When an individual or organization favours one side of an opinion over another, they have a bias.
Partisan or partisanship is a type of bias that occurs when news outlets, content creators, or public figures favour the leaders, platforms, ideologies of a political party or philosophy.