Is there too much Media?

I’m shocked to find myself even asking this question. As a fan of individual empowerment and self expression I’ve taken it as an article of faith that more media produced by more people is inherently a good thing. Democratization of information access is good. Opening up production of news to voices beyond the mainstream media is badly overdue. A profusion of alternative points of view is healthy. Despite having subscribed (and still subscribing) to these views, what I’ve noticed while avidly following the news in this election has left me wondering:

 

Is there too much media?

 

With so many outlets, expanded access to them, and especially with all of them picking up and feeding off of information from each other, the velocity of information in 2008 has increased markedly over 2004, which was itself noticeably speedier than 2000. Unfortunately, bad information propagates as quickly as good information in this environment.

 

Suppose, for example, I launch the story that Sarah Palin wrote an article for her high school newspaper urging underage girls to bear the children of reptilian aliens. Entirely fictional, but there are places I can post this story online where a significant number of people might see it. With a certain amount of plausibility, catchiness and volume of readership (I think I have the catchiness down, probably falling short on plausibility) my “story” will be mentioned secondhand, passed on in e-mails and posted to other blogs. With enough of this chatter, talk radio outlets will begin pro and con discussion of reptilian babygate. Enterprising 527 groups will incorporate it into campaign ads that they produce purely for online distribution to garner media coverage. The mainstream print and television media will start to mention it in their campaign coverage.

 

It will be thoroughly debunked by fact checking sites, and my original post will meanwhile have been taken down from the blog where it ran, and the editors there will have barred me from future posting. But by then the “fact” of Sarah Palin’s pro-saurian reproductive advocacy will be circling the globe, being kept alive by the endless recursive loop of one media outlet’s covering another media outlet’s coverage of it, which gets covered by another and...

 

I’ve chosen a deliberately ridiculous example here, but so far this year we’ve seen exactly this mechanism generate huge amounts of spurious news based on only slightly more robust storylines.

 

Part of the problem is that the proliferation of media has created a vast zone where news, opinion and satire liberally commingle. There are places where this is obvious (personal blogs, opinion pieces in all media) and others that situate themselves in a journalistic setting but do not consistently apply journalistic standards (political blogs, talk radio, shows on cable news outlets).

 

Even worse, the pressure created by competition between media and the need to constantly fill the volume increasingly encourages the mainstream news outlets to report “news” that has not been properly reviewed or checked. With “airtime” (for all media, not just broadcast) vastly in excess of the amount of properly evaluated news, fluffy noise expands to fill the space.

 

And let us not forget that these mainstream news outlets are, at the end of the day, commercial enterprises. They might not be in such a hurry to pass on half digested facts if there was no money to be made from selling the space they occupy.

 

I’m not entirely sure what I think of what to do in response. Certainly constricting the volume of media produced or constraining access to it is abhorrent to my democratic and DIY impulses. I have to believe it has more to do with the need for responsibility from both purveyors and consumers of information to insist on quality amidst the quantity.

 

I’d be very interested (back to democracy and free expression here) to hear what you have to say

About the Author

Chris West is an independent lifestyle advocate!