Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post, said in 2019, “When journalists are being called ‘an enemy of the people,’ and Black women reporters, and other reporters, are being called names and treated with such disrespect, I think it’s just so important to remind people of the importance of the media.”
Robust, quality journalism, particularly at the local level, is undoubtedly critical for a functioning democracy. It supports civic engagement and provides communities with vital information on issues such as health care, public safety and economic development. Journalism provides the tools necessary for a well-informed public and sustainable self-government.
Unfortunately, journalism today is unable to meet the civic information needs of our nation’s communities. This is not particularly surprising given that journalism has been facing a decline for years. Waves of media consolidation has led to newspapers laying off nearly half of their employees since 2008. Hedge funds, who own controlling stakes in local and regional newspapers across the country, have implemented cost-cutting strategies that have significantly diminished newsrooms. Thousands of communities now live in news deserts — places with little to no access to local news.
Despite the diversity that makes up our nation’s communities, there are still significant gaps in what news stories the media covers and what issues are presented as part of our civic discourse. This is directly tied to the abysmal rates at which women and people of color own broadcast stations. A media ecosystem where women and people of color are not present in programming, newsroom jobs and ownership rates cannot truly capture the needs and interests of all communities.
Infotainment has also diminished the quality of journalism today. Take the media’s coverage of Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 for example. Modern journalism’s emphasis on “horserace coverage” over issue-based reporting let then-candidate Trump receive nearly $2 billion in free media. At least one executive claimed the constant coverage of Trump was profitable for his media company. In many cases, excessive commercialization of media has replaced in-depth, investigative journalism.
Thankfully there are solutions to revitalize journalism to meet our civic information needs.
For starters, Congress can fund journalism that puts real dollars behind local media, and community, and public media of all kinds. Funds should be targeted at preserving newsrooms and reporting jobs at local commercial and nonprofit news outlets, and investments to address the civic-information needs of communities most affected by the long-term decline of local news.
Getting immediate funding for traditional news organizations is just a short-term solution, however. We also should be thinking long term about how journalism can meet the civic information needs of our communities in the 21st century.
In 2011, the FCC published a report making recommendations on how the information needs of communities can be met in a changing media landscape. A decade later, a lot has changed. While consolidation and news deserts have only grown worse, social media platforms are now dominating the advertising market, making the ad-driven business model for journalism unsustainable. Further, while more than 80% of people get their news online, we continue to lack a model for robust, independent online news, particularly at the local level. Policymakers need to take a fresh look at identifying what the information needs of our communities are today in the current landscape and make recommendations for sustainable, robust journalism.
The FCC can also take steps under its purview to support local journalism, fulfilling its public interest mandate to ensure our media ecosystem reflects our values of localism, competition and diversity. It can start by strengthening media ownership rules and promoting ownership diversity. Instead of rubber-stamping every merger that comes knocking on its door, the agency should exercise the authority it has been given by Congress and stop the tidal wave of consolidation that has occurred over the past two decades.
The challenges to our current media landscape are multi-layered that require bold solutions. In order to revive journalism as a pillar of our democracy, we need a vibrant ecosystem with diverse and independent voices, investigative reporting that holds power accountable, and robust reporting that can meet the information needs of our communities today.
Yosef Getachew is the media and democracy program director and Jonathan Walter is the media and democracy program fellow at Common Cause, a nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington. They wrote this for InsideSources.com.