Media isn’t just entertainment, it’s a pillar of democracy. It is as essential as the legislature and judiciary in its role of educating the public and enabling them to form opinions on matters that affect them.
But as media revenues have become increasingly decoupled from the quality of the content they produce, we need to establish a mechanism to measure how people become informed, and reward the channels that cultivate better-informed and critically-thinking citizens.
Media is under increasing scrutiny due to so-called “fake news” and the deterioration of fact checking, while what sells is taking priority over what’s important. We know that phony news articles and shallow, uninformed reporting and speculation made a difference in both the election of Trump and the Brexit referendum.
It is often the case that the media that target the poor and the angry are actually owned and controlled by the rich and powerful, who misinform them with their one-sided and self-serving portrayal of the world. The media campaigns against Bernie Sanders and British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom the tabloids do their best to paint as extremists and unelectable, are good examples.
We need to remember what media means for society and democracy. A democracy without a parliament or courts is unable to function. This is true of a democracy without proper media too. Media isn’t (just) entertainment! It must ensure that citizens are well informed when they cast their votes.
This issue is compounded by the problem that most people don’t pay for their news. But that doesn’t mean it’s free. Most media consumption is routed through social media, where the performance of an article is measured in the advertisement dollars it can generate. Facebook will serve you the article if you’re likely to click on it. Engagement has become more important than quality or truthfulness.
The results are catastrophic. The United States, home to the most sophisticated social research on everything from childcare to education to healthcare, is unable to turn this research into policies and legislation that would help its citizens. The public has been fed misinformation for so many years that it unknowingly votes against its best interests. Respect for the sciences has been undermined, while opinion, speculation and “alternative facts” are defended in the name of free speech. We have become so focused on having a conversation that “sells” that we seem to have a problem cutting someone off when they are lying or talking bullshit. It would seem that a stupid statement or fight is better for ratings than a boring explanation of the truth.
The “Smart Media Fund”
If we accept that society has a lot to gain from educating its citizens properly on issues of public concern, then we can agree that informing citizens is a public good that the public sector should incentivise.
We can do so by rewarding media organisations that do a good job of keeping citizens informed, and levying additional taxes on those that do not. This could easily be determined by asking citizens to take short surveys about the media they are consuming, and comparing the result to how informed they are on a range of issues.
We already measure which media people consume. This information is used to establish the pricing of various media channels, as well as to allow marketers to better target their audiences. We also have the technology to track who consumes what media, down to the level of which articles have been read, or videos watched.
Imagine a public fund – let’s call it the Smart Media Fund – that is financed by taxes on advertising and spent to support platforms that do a good job of informing the public. While it would need hundreds of millions, if not billions, of kroner, the Smart Media Fund wouldn’t be an expensive investment. We are talking about education, and education is a public good that we all benefit from. A good article, documentary or debate has great economic value – not only for the viewer, but also for the rest of society – and deserves to receive our tax money.
Now imagine Facebook under such a system: Zuckerberg and his gang would need to optimise not only for clicks and advertising revenue. They’d also need to optimise to promote high-quality media in order to benefit from the Smart Media Fund. They’ll change their algorithms so that instead of counting clicks, they’re measuring quality.
You may be thinking that this is the purpose of public television – providing media in the public interest. While well-intended, public media ends up being consumed by only a select few, other media outlets, which constitute by far the majority of the content we consume, remain unobliged to serve the public interest. Instead of using our public funds to steer the broader conversation, we create small islands on which the self-selected few seek refuge, and end up preaching to the choir.
The Smart Media Fund would combine free speech and market forces with the values we need to express to protect our democracy and our social contract. We cannot let a pillar of our democracy, the media, run its course with no connection to its public impact. The opportunities in the digital age are here, and we need policy-makers to think innovatively to capture them. M