Journalism Is Important

This is the first post in a series on things the 2020 pandemic has taught me. It's been by far the weirdest and hardest thing I've experienced so far in my life. It was a real struggle to figure out how to operate in this new kind of world, but after about half a year I feel like I'm finally starting to get my bearings. Some days feel normal again, and I can mostly do the things I used to enjoy before the pandemic hit. Now that I have some presence of mind back I realized the experience has actually taught me several important things. The first is that journalism is important.

We Need Useful and True Information

Most of the media we consume now is either clickbait or fake news. Nobody wants to believe that, but it's immediately obvious as soon as you find yourself seeking actual news. You know, like new information that's true about the world. This pandemic has taught me a new appreciation for a certain kind of journalism.

I live in a big city and things around me change frequently and quickly. I don't want to wade through hours of government press conferences or pages of legislation to understand what's going on -- whether I'm allowed to do my plans this weekend, what I need to wear or do in public, where I should avoid spending time. Those are all things I care about and need to know in order to live my life, but the answers aren't immediately clear when there's a torrent of new information coming from every level of government every week.

Consolidating this deluge of new information into a mass-consumable format is one thing certain types of real journalists do. They have standards and accountability. They have also have mechanisms for earning trust, like fact checking and verifying sources and issuing errata. All of these things make it reasonable for us to believe that what they say is true. At a time when decisions we make can have potentially critical impact, it's important to learn what the latest updates are and be able to trust them.

At the beginning of the pandemic I realized the usual places I got my "news" were honestly trash. I started paying several independent media outlets that employ these kinds of journalists -- real people who actually go into the world and collect information then write about it in an honest way -- in the hope that they will continue to do this service and can outlast social media's onslaught on truth and decency.

There Need To Be Consequences For Misinformation

This pandemic also made me realize that we really need to do something about bad information. I guess that sounds facetious. Obviously bad information has always been a problem, but we are encountering it in a new way this year and we need to respond to it in a new way, too.

Incentives are completely misaligned right now. Literally billions of people primarily interact with the outside world through social media, which has monetized "engagement", which is just a polite term for behaviour manipulation. This compels news outlets to produce "engaging" content so they can compete with all of the other content creators trying to capture our attention. Engaging content is the opposite of thoughtful, nuanced content. This is partly how we got to a world where it's near impossible to find out what the facts even are.

It's crucial that we figure out how to punish rather than reward the current business model of media and social media companies. It should be easiest and most compelling for a normal person to get information from a reputable authority, not some anonymous, personalized, possibly fake source on the internet.

In the midst of a massive health and economic crisis like the one we're currently living through, peddling government propaganda or disseminating misinformation escalates from being merely annoying and distracting to dangerous and unethical. There are no consequences for this, which is another problem we need to fix. But that's a whole separate series for another time.

Support Actual Journalists

If you don't already, I want to encourage you to pay money to reputable outlets for your news. You can see which ones those are by checking what they published in the early days of the crisis. Find ones who had journalists on the ground, reporting the breaking news as your city was shutting down and rules were changing day by day. We need those people to keep their jobs.

Advertising (meaning, selling our attention) is a broken business model and until we figure out a better way to fund journalism, we'll have to do it ourselves. There are surprisingly few media companies left that still have actual humans on staff, on the ground in a crisis, reporting new information that it's important for people to know. We need to support them to make sure they don't go out of business, having been replaced by clickbait-generating bots and "influencers" who produce vacuous content by the ton for likes.

We've been blurring the lines between entertainment and journalism for a while now and I think it's finally catching up with us.