Examining the journey from a singular interpretation of world events, to a fragmented mess of misinformation and how we have moved from news that unifies us, to news that tears us apart.
Lyndsey C. Fox
The United States of America. A nation born of division, but generally unified in its desire to defend itself, troubled as it may be. Throughout our history there have been countless events where that unity was put to the test. Moments of catastrophe that could have divided us, but instead unified us. Unified us against a known enemy — a person, a place, an idea. But in recent years, something has changed. Over the past twenty years, little by little, we’ve seen even the feigned unity splinter, crescendoing with the attack on The Capitol two weeks ago.
How did we get to a point of such extreme division? While the ecosystem of our society is too wildly complicated to finger point at just one thing, there must be some responsibility given to the ever changing landscape of media and the way it disseminates information to the public. And as marketers, we owe it to the American people to not just take accountability for the large part we play in maintaining a system that perpetuates polarization, but to do something about it.
On November 22, 1963, Americans nationwide gathered around their black and white televisions at home, at the office, at the lunch counter, and together with Walter Cronkite mourned the loss of their young president. A president whose victory itself was largely due to the power of the medium of television, giving the country faith in the young man they saw during the very first televised presidential debate — Kennedy, a vision of poise next to Nixon’s slouch. Our television screens (along with our morning papers) gave us a single stream of factual information that we trusted as having integrity and accepted as truth.
On September 11, 2001 Americans nationwide gathered around their televisions as they watched in horror as the twin towers fell. In this moment, Americans were unified in the war against terrorism, against Al Qaeda. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, we witnessed the slow rise in popularity of editorially forward sources such as polarized cable news, which enabled Americans to choose the source whose values aligned with their own — a flawed selection process to obtain supposedly objective information. To some, brown Americans became a proxy for Al Qaeda as certain newsrooms began suggesting we question everyone whose skin color was similar to the enemy. Modern day McCarthyism, a blatant disregard for fact or evidence, solely the opinion of some that became fact to others. We watched as opinion disguised as fact empowered the floodgates of media division, perpetuated by the mass adoption of smartphones and social media.
Over the past twenty years, our news sources have gone from splintered to shattered, shards of editorial content disguised as news showing up by the millions right in the palm of our hands every day. Over the past ten years, we’ve witnessed fact become dismissed for conspiracy and conspiracy become perceived potential reality for so many, these shards of opinion acting as mind altering cult leaders, engaging and entertaining but for all of the wrong reasons. Over the past ten years, we’ve learned to consume what is packaged to us as news — more entertaining than informational.
News gets its name from what it is — “Interesting new information,” that the journalist, the professional, determines is factual or not. News is not supposed to be comfortable, nothing new is. News is meant to inform, not usually to entertain. Punditry is not news, it’s new information shrouded in educated opinion. Today it’s crucial that we evolve the definition of news back to what it once was — information that is relevant and useful, fact checked and disseminated by a professional who believes in journalistic integrity.
According to PEW, Newsroom employment at US newspapers has dropped 51% between 2008 and 2019 ¹. This would suggest that we are a society that doesn’t prioritize the profession of journalism. We have become a society where the onus is now on the reader to check their facts. We have become a society where it is far too easy to find the “facts” that suit the story that aligns the most with your own gut, your own opinion.
The country is not united — it is more divided than ever and so much of that can be blamed on the way information is disseminated and framed.
As marketers, we have played too large a role in supporting irresponsible media outlets as we chased eyeballs and engagement. We must act now if we want to ensure a thriving democracy for generations to come by prioritizing fact and critical thought over conspiracy and entertainment.
We must re-establish the power of journalism and reprioritize its professional integrity.
We must build trust through education.
We must show how real information creates sustaining, positive impact.
Today, we have the unique power to make positive change by spending our advertising dollars with local, responsible news sources who act as fact checkers and information providers. We have to help guide the public to the right information, not just show up where they are consuming the wrong information. Unity feels a long way off for these United States of America, but there’s no way to even begin building toward a more equitable, more unified United States without reconsidering what’s at stake if we do not change the way we spend our advertising dollars.
¹ PEW Research “U.S. newspapers have shed half of their newsroom employees since 2008” April 2020