Crosswise: The Baskin-Robbinization of American media News consumption preferences vary wildly across age demographics. Can citizens ever get back on the same page?

by Pearson Cross

“The old centers of power have been torn down, but the new ones have neither the authority nor the legitimacy of those they’ve superseded.” (Susan B. Glasser, Politico, December 2, 2016)

"The press has become so dishonest that if we don't talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice."

"We have to talk to find out what's going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control."

(Donald Trump, News Conference, February 16, 2017)

No development in the Trump era has more impact than the diminution of the press, otherwise known as the mainstream media (MSM) or, as Sarah Palin called it in 2009, the “lame-stream media.” This diminution, however, has been less the result of active efforts, distrust and ill will than an ineluctable by-product of the digital revolution, which has hit the news business like a bomb, shattering the existing sources while producing others.

An uninformed person, told of this upheaval in the news business, might see it as an unadulterated good, pointing to the greater number of people paying attention to public affairs and fewer elite gatekeepers deciding what information should be brought to the public’s attention. From this point of view, this democratization of the news industry might even presage the fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that the best way to protect liberty is to give people the “full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people” (letter to Edward Carrington, 1787).

A less happy consequence of this new state of affairs, however, is that in the face of frenzied competition, the most trusted bastions of the news business have retreated and retrenched. This retreat has been prompted and accompanied by a sharp loss of revenue, which, in turn, has limited these organizations’ ability to finance and deliver high-quality reporting. Cutbacks, consolidations and closings are the painful facts of life in today’s news industry. Louisiana citizens have seen the venerable Times-Picayune become a three-times-a-week publication after 175 years of continuous daily publication. Gannett, which owns five Louisiana newspapers, similarly reduced the Daily World of Opelousas and the Town-Talk of Alexandria. Fewer publications means fewer reporters and less coverage.

Gannett, for example, cut award-winning reporter and columnist John Hill from their Baton Rouge capital bureau before giving celebrated veteran reporter Mike Hasten his pink slip and eliminating the bureau altogether. Gannett today assigns a single reporter to Baton Rouge during the legislative session only.

If the networks and daily papers are not providing it, how do people stay informed? A 2017 Pew Research Center study asked people how they got information about the 2016 Presidential Election. The answers they received revealed the new dispensation in political news: Each of the 11 sources—which included social media, cable TV news, news websites and late-night comedy—has a distinctive clientele, style and viewpoint (figure 1). More distinctive than the sources themselves was the gulf between who used what source. The data revealed that there is no longer anything remotely like a “public square.” Instead, news today resembles a Baskin-Robbins, where everyone chooses the flavor that best suits them.

The young, unsurprisingly, are addicted to their cell phones, making social media their first choice for news. The use of social media in fact provides a telling snapshot of the news information generation gap. While 35 percent of those 18-29 get their news from social media, this figure dropped to 15 percent among those 30-49, 5 percent among those 50-64, and finally to a bare 1 percent among those over 65. Thus, the number one source of news for the youngest was the least sought source of news for their grandparents.

What does this proliferation of news sources and the different consumption habits among and across the generations mean for news coverage and for America? It means that consumers of news and information can choose what to listen to, based on personal preference, which includes their personal beliefs. Don’t believe in climate change? Listen to a source that supports your view. Believe strongly in the importance of saving the planet? Listen to a source that supports regulation promising to do so. Think the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to sway the election? Listen to a source that supports that version of events. Believe the opposite? Listen to Alex Jones.

Given their ability to control what they listen to or read, news consumers today are increasingly unlikely to encounter views that conflict with or challenge their own. When they do encounter these views, they are increasingly likely to discount what they view as “fake news” — a popular refrain of our president. Referring to this phenomenon, one disgruntled editor commented, “The media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter” (Susan Glasser, Politico, December 2016). Perhaps it did matter to those few who were listening, but most everyone else was locked into their own carefully selected and curated view of the world — a world that appears very different depending on which outlet you’re tuned into.