In the past four years the media in the US and UK have learned what other parts of the world woke up to some time ago: namely, that politicians can be elected without ever engaging with the news media.
Presidents and prime ministers can succeed by telling lies and avoiding any accountability in terms of public scrutiny. This is a global phenomenon – Narendra Modi, India’s charismatic authoritarian leader, has never held a press conference. The White House press secretary has not held a briefing for half a year – not even in the last week, when the US has teetered on the brink of a war.
Western media outlets have been learning something devastating over the past few years: they weren’t valued for their own sake.
For a long time, news rooms performed a vital role: they were a mediator between the world and people. People who, because of the limits of technology, only had access to a limited amount of information. If a politician wanted to gain traction with a wider community, they had to go to a paper.
There’s a cultural element to this: people of a certain class were convinced (in part by the media) that it was good to be the kind of person who reads the news. So they dutifully listened to bulletins and bought papers to stay informed.
There were political ads, of course. And they were regulated. Journalists asking questions and conducted investigations and did their best to play their part in this lynchpin of democracy (albeit a self-proclaimed lynchpin).
Then social media came along. And as Bell puts it:
Politicians across the spectrum understand that there is little to be gained by subjecting themselves even to good faith questioning.
Media outlets have been roundly removed from the politicians-to-people relationship. And why wouldn’t politicians avoid them? Facebook alone lets them share the exact message they want, often micro-targeted and tested to whatever demographics they want (although the value of any data they receive is questionable) and, to top it all off, they can remove or hide any comments they dislike to create the illusion of support.
To that end, it’s worth paying attention to what’s happening in countries that haven’t necessarily had the same relationship with the media as the West. We can learn a lot about our own challenges by looking at places that skipped tech generations – say, for example, those that went straight from “little to no internet access” to “pervasive internet via smartphones” – and this interaction between the public, politicians, and social media could be similar.
News media still has value. It’s still important. Some of the brightest people I’ve worked with are journalists. They also have the benefit of access, expertise, resources and, most of all, time (even if the last two are in noticeably shorter supply nowadays).
But there’s one problem. Media outlets convinced people it was important to hear from politicians. They just didn’t prepare for a time when they weren’t part of that relationship.
Social media does the job faster and seemingly more effectively. If it’s important to hear from politicians, why not go to the source? Especially now that Western media has a bad reputation (and who has been spreading that idea around?).
Because of all this, media outlets are desperately trying to reassert and reframe their value. Some are doing it better than others.
But here’s the thing. A lot of people don’t really care about the news in a practical sense. They care about it abstractly, if they care at all. This came up countless times when I worked at media outlets: readers would comment, at length, about how much they cared about an issue but, if you checked the number of reads on an article about that exact subject, the number would be so low you’d start to lose hope.
People want to know that someone out there is doing the work. And, if something big happens (or if they personally care about something), they want the news there. But, beyond that, they don’t care. They don’t want to read or support all the little bits of reporting that build up to those big stories.
It’s much easier to just follow a politician on social and feel like you’re across it all.