Raycraft: Journalism needs to return to substance

I read something interesting recently. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I clicked on something that promised to be wildly interesting – and important, and useful – but it didn’t really deliver.

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, and an article from The Atlantic caught my eye: Why So Many Smart People Aren’t Happy.

It’s a paradox. Shouldn’t the most accomplished be well equipped to make choices that maximize life satisfaction?

As a longtime reader of The Atlantic, and someone hoping for happiness, I was interested. After months of rigorous investigation into this complex psychological and social question, the magazine had an answer. Well, not quite.

The article was a brief Q&A with Raj Raghunathan, a business professor who had written a book on the subject. I felt the thin content didn’t deliver on the promise of the Facebook post.

It’s an experience I’m familiar with now, and it’s frustrating. I don’t know what to call this metamorphosis of news in the digital, social media age. It’s not exactly clickbait – a pejorative term reserved for sites like Buzz Feed, Diply and Vice, the masters of the empty tease. It’s more complex than that.

It’s more like a return to the lurid, tantalizing headlines of the gossip rags and tabloids that were part of yellow journalism. Today, social media has enabled the rebirth of sensationalist, simplistic and, at times, downright misleading ‘news’ as a strategy, one that’s been adopted by traditional, respected publishers to drive traffic and increase page views. It’s a deception that’s putting public trust in the media at risk.

I understand why media outlets are taking this approach. They feel it’s their last hope to stay alive – they need to drive eyeballs to advertisers who are already flocking to Facebook and Google. They’re selling their souls to save their skins. As a young journalist, I’m asking whether they should.

With ad revenue falling, publishers have responded by churning out shallow, low-quality work dressed up as important information. And that’s the problem – the presentation versus the substance. If I feel I can’t trust the media not to inflate what’s beyond the Facebook post, the tweet, or the hyperlink, how the heck can I trust them to report accurately on the most significant issues of the day?

And there, too, strange forces are at work. Pundits, experts and talking heads claim to be puzzled by the recent wave of violence at the same time the companies they work for fill my social media feeds with stories on the motives and messages of the killers. Donald Trump’s nomination ‘shocks’ them but his face is plastered all over their front pages and websites. It’s giving a giant, free and reliable platform to the most bigoted and deranged among us. All for page views.

Journalism is in the business of truth, but what happens when the media presents the awful truth with such volume that our entire conception of the world, and the direction it’s heading, becomes a falsehood?

The bill for this sensationalism and baiting hasn’t fully come in yet. I fear it might soon. As companies boast about their online readership, public opinion of the media continues to drop. Only 40 per cent of Americans trust the media, compared to 55 per cent in 1999. Trust is falling fastest among young people, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. The digital world has had a hand in this. The medium is the message, and the web has irrevocably altered our notions of news.

We, the readers, must be the source of change. We must stop consuming the journalistic equivalent of microwaveable chicken wings and start eating our fresh vegetables. Reporting in a world of increasing technological, scientific and political complexity takes time and money. We must respect that – we must provide the media with incentives to produce in-depth, informed reporting.

Change is coming. Facebook recently announced it will update its newsfeed to reduce ‘headlines that leave out crucial information.’ A new study from Western New Mexico University, which observes a link between media coverage and mass shootings, calls for media restraint on publishing the names, photos and videos of killers.

It goes to show that while good journalism is critical, skeptical and vigilant, this is only possible when we take the same approach to journalism itself.

Richard Raycraft is a student in journalism and communication at Western. He is the news, sports and spoken-word director at Western’s campus radio station, 94.9 CHRW-FM. This essay, which originally appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, won him the Haak Saan Responsible Journalism Scholarship.