How the Media's Addiction to Bad News Hurts Dems
The constant drum of clickbait-y bad news is a huge impediment to Democratic messaging in 2022 and beyond
Earlier this fall, cable news, Twitter, and much of the media were engulfed in a moral panic about the supply chain. The pandemic-related delays in the manufacture and delivery of certain products morphed, as it often does, into something dire enough to get eyeballs and clicks.
“The shelves were empty.”
“No candy for Halloween.”
“Turkeys would be unavailable for Thanksgiving.”
One reporter even hectored Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, because she was unwilling to guarantee that his Christmas gifts would arrive on time. As you certainly know, none of this came to pass. Turkeys were eaten, shelves were stocked, and presents arrived on time. But you only know that because you ate the turkey, saw the shelves, and opened your presents on Christmas morning. While the looming supply chain crisis dominated the news for weeks, the fact that the crisis was averted barely made a ripple.
This dynamic is not unique to the supply chain story. It feels like the media is in constant search for a crisis to keep their viewers and readers in a state of perpetual anxiety. Every molehill is covered like a mountain. Every inadvertent gaffe is a major scandal. Bad news dominates. Good news is hard to find.
The dissonance between the media’s reaction to what could happen and what didn’t happen with the supply chain led to a round of well-deserved media criticism. I will certainly join in that criticism (how could I not!), but the media’s addiction to bad news is a driving dynamic in today’s politics and helps explain the challenges facing Democrats as they try to hold onto their majorities in 2022 and beyond.
Crisis = Clicks
Matthew Kaminski, Editor in Chief of Politico, recently sent one of the most inadvertently revealing tweets about the state of modern journalism — not to mention the ethos of his own publication. On December 21st, Kaminski celebrated that nearly 20 percent of the stories in a recent top 50 list were from Politico.
Chartbeat @ChartbeatThe moment you’ve been waiting for...The Most Engaging Stories of 2021! https://t.co/PP6ijsiOBO #2021EngagingStories #journalism #data #publishing https://t.co/LypKlrdMt3
This list was not from the Pulitzer Committee. It did not celebrate the quality of the writing or the newsworthiness of the scoop. It was not a testament to the courage of the reporter or the talent of the editor. Kaminski was touting Chartbeat’s list of most viral news stories of 2021. Chartbeat is a tech platform that helps media outlets measure engagement — how many people read a story; shared a story; or otherwise interacted with the content. In a world where Internet traffic drives ad revenue, Chartbeat is the end-all-be-all for a lot of media outlets. The stories that spike on Chartbeat get higher placement on the website and are relentlessly promoted on social media. And, of course, every media outlet wants to write more stories that people want to read, so they double and triple down on those topics. The Neilsen ratings are the equivalent for cable networks. Stories that get more eyeballs, get more airtime.
A look at the Chartbeat list deciphers why media outlets are so committed to scaring the shit out of their audience. 21 of the top 50 most engaging stories are about Donald Trump, which is truly stunning when you consider that he stopped being president less than three weeks into this year. The rest of the list is populated with stories of shootings, pandemic suffering, and other crises. There is some high-quality, important journalism on the list like the New York Times’ detailed account of the run-up to the January 6th insurrection, the Washington Post’s reporting on Trump’s attempt to pressure Georgia election officials, and Timothy Snyder’s essay about ascendant authoritarianism. With a small smattering of exceptions, the list of the most read and shared stories is filled with bad news.
None of this is new. The idea that if “it bleeds, it leads” long predates Donald Trump, Facebook, and even the Internet. How many remember when CNN focused the entire network on the disappearance of a Malaysian airplane for what seemed like an entire year? Like everything else in life, what was once bad has been made exponentially worse due to Mark Zuckerberg’s world-destroying avarice. Facebook pulls major traffic and therefore is an enormous revenue driver for many media outlets. The topics trending on Facebook are the ones that will deliver the most clicks and money to media outlets. And I don’t know if you have been on Facebook recently, but it is a toxic cesspool of misinformation and racist agitprop.
Coming to Terms with the Media
Many of you will read this and want to scream about the greed and irresponsibility of the media. I could hardly blame you, but that anger also reveals a fundamental misconception about the media that is shared by so many Democrats.
While a lot of journalism serves the public, it is not a public service. At the end of the day, journalism is a business. Whether it’s CNN, the New York Times, or your local newspaper (if you still have one), the primary function of these organizations is to make money. If they don’t, they layoff reporters and do less journalism. This is a problem greatly exacerbated by the fact that many of our major media outlets are subsidiaries of giant corporations like Disney, Comcast, and Viacom.
It’s easy to blame the media outlets, but these are stories the public wants to read. A restaurant that served people what they should eat, not what they want to eat wouldn’t survive very long. Using this logic, it’s no wonder most media outlets focus on what people want to read, not what they should read.
As a society, we can’t simultaneously bemoan all the media jobs lost and outlets shuttered AND complain about clickbait journalism. The financial incentives of the Facebook-dominated Internet ecosystem are perverse, yet immense. Up until the moment some smart person comes up with a new, more sustainable business model for journalism, clicks are going to be a primary driver for the decisions made in newsrooms. Is that ideal? No. Is it good for democracy? Hell no. Is that the reality for the foreseeable future? Absolutely. The media will continue to focus on crises, real and imagined. Even the most minor problems will be turned up to an eleven, but that’s what we want and its how they get paid.
And to be totally fair, it’s not all about money. Much of the political media believes their primary purpose is to hold the powerful accountable. This approach necessitates a focus on what’s going wrong in government at the expense of what’s going right. Problems are newsworthy. Solutions to those problems, less so.
The Democrats’ Dilemma
In 2022, Democrats have a political imperative to share good news with the voters. We must tell people what President Biden and the Democratic Congress delivered. Despite inflation and other issues, the American economy is in the midst of a historic recovery. More jobs were created in 2021 than any year in American history. Between the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, and whatever parts of Biden’s economic plan hopefully emerge from the Manchin cul-de-sac, we have a great story to tell. But here’s where the rubber hits the road for the Democratic Party: we are trying to tell a story of good news through a media with every incentive to focus on bad news. To put a finer point on it, the first story about a positive accomplishment from Joe Biden, who happens to be the President of the United States, comes in at number 58 on the Chartbeat list. While I know a lot of stories were written about Biden’s accomplishments, they are not being read, shared or promoted like accounts of crises. The good is being drowned out by the bad. It is a strategy doomed to fail.
Beyond this upcoming election, the traditional media’s incessant trumpeting of bad news and failures poses a huge impediment for a Democratic Party trying to sell the idea that government can be a force for good. Once again, we are asking the media to tell a story that they have no financial or cultural inclination to tell. Yet, we wonder why our message doesn’t get out.
Over the medium term, the primary solution to this problem is to build up the progressive media ecosystem. The Republicans recognized this long ago and spent decades and billions of dollars to create a massive apparatus to ensure they are not dependent on the whims of Jeff Zucker and Dean Baquet to get their message in front of voters. The creation of Crooked Media, A More Perfect Union, Good Information, and others made important strides in recent years, but we are lagging incredibly far behind. Too many progressive donors and Democratic elected officials are resistant to this effort and remain tied to an old, outdated model of communications.
In the short term, we need to recognize that we have agency in this situation. And when I say “we” I don’t mean the White House and the DNC. I mean you and me. Every person with a smartphone has the ability to spread good news to our networks — our Facebook friends, Instagram and Twitter followers, and the contacts in our phones. We can share good news and better information. We can take it upon ourselves to make sure the people in our lives know what was in the American Rescue Plan or what Joe Biden has done to make sure everyone who wants a vaccine can get one. We need more tools to make such grassroots messaging easier, but if you want to take matters into your own hands, I would recommend joining Demcast, an organization that facilitates digital organizing and messaging.
None of this is easy. But no one is going to do it for us. The media is not going to change their stripes, so we need to change our strategy.