The Trade-off Between News Journalism Quality and Clickability

By News on the Record Archives
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Although philosophy and the business of news do tend to occupy their respective realms and often concern themselves with vastly different questions, once in a great while a debate within philosophy can shed light on a nagging issue in journalism. The relevant disagreement for our purposes concerns a difference of opinion between two giants of a strand of philosophy called utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham and his acolyte (and some-time critic) John Stuart Mill. In short, Mill would come to diverge from his predecessor's view that all types of pleasures were of equal value; as Bentham famously wrote in 1825, "Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnish more pleasure, it is more valuable than either."

Thirty-six years later, Mill would find himself distinguishing between higher and lower pleasures and arguing that "... there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation." For Mill, poetry was (and ought always to be) preferable to push-pin. Human beings are distinguished by their capacity for rationality and thus the potential for appreciating subjects such as poetry and literature. To engage with such subjects is to indulge in activity that is inherently more valuable -- and more a fulfillment of one's potential as a thinking being -- than to give oneself over only to simple, base sensation: what push-pin provides.

Friends of mine who are kind enough to make a habit of watching my appearances on various programs or shows have, at this point, likely grown weary of the frequency by which I recite a certain quotation. However, I'm tempted to think my disinterest in providing variety on this front might be a partial reflection of the pointedness of this particular quotation and its ability neatly to encapsulate much of what I see as lacking in today's news media. It comes from The Atlantic'sGraeme Wood and reads as, "Great journalism remains one of the least efficient ways to get internet traffic yet devised."

What we might call "Wood's dictum," though certainly tailored for the Internet age, is not altogether unlike the quip from the essayist Logan Pearsall Smith that "unsaleability seems to be the hallmark, in modern times, of quality in writing." Given that Smith died a decade before Sir Tim Berners-Lee was even born, the issue clearly predates the advent of the internet. With that said, there is no doubt that the internet has done much to exacerbate this. As I touched on in a September, 2019 column critical of the content that passes for news on the popular app Snapchat, the stories selected for display invariably appear chosen for their likelihood to provoke anger, engender disgust or to draw out any number of visceral reactions -- stories that do anything and everything but provoke thought.

Of course, this is true not only on Snapchat and other apps marketed towards younger demographics. Similarly, the preference for many news outlets (and news aggregators even more so) is for the trivial over the more substantive, even when there's a respite from appealing to the overtly salacious or riling. One might, to this point, recall MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell abruptly cutting off an interview with a member of Congress to provide the latest twist in the saga of Justin Bieber's 2014 arrest for drag racing on a Miami street. This is not to say that every utterance by a member of Congress is worthy of our attention; however, there does appear to be some gradation of importance being routinely upended.

Although it has become unfashionable in our current, post-aesthetic age to assert that some works of writing or journalism are qualitatively better than others, there is a reason that certain outlets that have elected to focus on quality -- whether this be, say, Tablet(established 2009) or The New Criterion (established 1982) -- are either praised for doing so and/or have been able to weather an increasingly financially inhospitable media environment. All the while, dissatisfaction with the state of many news outlets continues, with concerns about the quality of content likely being as responsible as concerns about political bias.

This brings me to a theme that has presented itself in many of my columns: the disconnect between short-term and long-term incentives. In the short-term, outlets may stand to benefit from the increased clicks that often accompany churning out the sensational or the emotionally jarring. However, over time, outlets that succumb to this practice begin to forfeit credibility and, in turn, respectability. In the meantime, "good journalism" can be forced into becoming an ideological exercise (often due to a reliance on ideologically motivated subscribers) as advertising dollars are swallowed up by those trafficking in the clickable and, even more so, by Big Tech.

To be clear, the issue is not that excellent journalism is not being produced; it is, every single day. The problem is that it is being crowded out -- obscured -- to the point that one often needs to undergo a search for it that, at times, seems nothing short of arduous. Mill writes, "Men lose their high aspirations as they lose their intellectual tastes ... and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying." Crucially, it is important to recall that rediscovering an appreciation for quality journalism need not take an elitist turn (replete with blithe dismissals of reasonably thoughtful content as "middlebrow," or any denigrations of the like). However, should certain media outlets elect to reprioritize quality, they will likely find that clickability tends to provide only fleeting victories and that -- over time -- readers might be willing to reward those publications that offer them more than just stir and sensation.

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