American Culture

Why American media has such a signal-to-noise problem, pt. 2

Part 2 of a series; Previously: What Bell Labs and French Intellectuals Can Tell Us About Cronkite and Couric

The Signal-to-Noise Journey of American Media

The 20th Century represented a Golden Age of Institutional Journalism. The Yellow Journalism wars of the late 19th Century gave way to a more responsible mode of reporting built on ethical and professional codes that encouraged fairness and “objectivity.” (Granted, these concepts, like their bastard cousin “balance,” are not wholly unproblematic. Still, they represented a far better way of conducting journalism than we had seen before.) It’s probably not idealizing too much to assert that reporting in the Cronkite Era, for instance, was characterized by a commitment to rise above partisanship and manipulation. The journalist was expected to hold him/herself to a higher standard and to serve the public interest. These professionals – and I have met a few who are more than worthy of the title – believed they had a duty to search for the facts and to present them in a fashion that was as free of bias as possible.

In other words, their careers, like that of Claude Shannon, were devoted to maximizing the signal in the system – the system here being the “marketplace of ideas.”

By now the critical reader has probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned money. Said reader might suggest that I wax a little too starry-eyed, that journalism was always about ratings, circulation and profit. The really cynical response might say – as I myself have said – that even our greatest reporters were doing nothing more than selling product. True enough.

However, the issue here is about the assumptions involved regarding the path to profit. In Cronkite World, the reporter (and editor and publisher) assumed that success had something to do with what I’m here calling signal. You attracted a larger audience and sold more soap if you did a better job investigating, digging, presenting the public with facts. When you did a better job than your competitor at providing the audience with relevant, meaningful, accurate information that helped them understand and interact with their environment, then you and your employer would be more successful.

That is, your success in the marketplace was intimately tied to your professional ability. Success was a function of signal.

Somewhere along the way that changed, though. Here’s what I think happened.

First, in Uncle Walter’s day you had three channels (networks plus local affiliates), you had a couple local newspapers and a local radio station or two. If you grew up in a place like I did (Winston-Salem, NC), you likely had no more than six sources of information available to you on a given day. If there were a major story to be discovered at the national level, the competition to break it was going to include CBS, NBC, ABC, UPI, AP, Reuters maybe, and that’s about it. If the story was local it was down to a couple local papers and the three local affiliates.

That’s a comparatively small field of competitors, and given the number of things that happen in a given week there were usually enough scoops to go around. So to a significant degree, it was possible to make a living off of signal.

What about today? How many potential sources for news are available to you? Legacy networks; national papers; cable news channels (and cable “news” channels); ubiquitous access not only to your local paper and TV affiliates, but to all local affiliates and papers; online alt.news outlets; blogs – millions and millions of blogs; advocacy group sites; and a plethora of other channels, including e-mail (and lists), newsgroups and forums, mobile (like Twitter), and on and on we go. Even if we assume that there’s 10 times as much interesting news to be scooped than their used to be, the competition for those scoops has grown at an insane pace. If you’re in the news business, you probably find that the ratio of news to competitors is dozens of times worse than it was when Cronkite sat in Katie Couric’s chair. Yes, several outlets are still trying – a couple national papers, AP, Reuters, etc. But that’s about it. Everybody else (Scholars & Rogues included) is trying to attract the attention of the public, and very few of the models in use rely on what we might see as a traditional approach to news and reporting.

So. The pursuit of signal ain’t cheap or easy. The return rate on that investment is hardly guaranteed. And even if you are doing pretty well at old-style reporting, competition for eyeballs is simply ridiculous. A news agency, therefore, that insists on the old signal-based model is fighting an uphill battle.

Welcome to the Jungle

As with the problem faced by the academy, described by Katherine Hayles in part 1, media businesses had (have, and always will have) an institutional need to make a profit. Whether there’s actually enough signal to go around is momentarily beside the point, because it’s easy to see how the perception might evolve in a corporate boardroom that the traditional approach is a losing game. (And in a market-driven society, “perception is everything” is literally true.) In this brave new world of 500 channels and seemingly infinite numbers of Internet-delivered information (and disinformation) sites, it’s harder than ever to attract necessary revenues the old-fashioned way.

The conclusion: if there’s 10,000 guys stomping all around Signal Lake, hundreds of boats jockeying for position on every square inch of surface, a million more casting off the bridge, all fighting over two or three half-assed little fish, then maybe we ought to wander over to the River of Noise. Something is always biting there.

If my theory is right, then, our media institutions are behaving the way they are out of a certain logic. Not an admirable or productive logic, but something that makes sense if you’re looking for cause and effect. To wit: at the moment, there’s a prevailing perception (likely accurate) that there’s a greater return – a massively greater return – to be had on noise generation than there is signal hunting. Putting a hard-nosed investigative reporter on the trail of an important story for a few weeks or months, that’s an iffy investment. Employing enough reporters to reliably fill up the 24/7/4ever news cycle, that’s expensive. How much easier it is to simply trot Matt Lauer and Ann Curry out there to primp and blather over the latest “development” in the Michael Jackson “story.”

The results? Well, the networks are making money, aren’t they?

So, if I can try and pull all this together:

  • Once upon a time both academia and the news media were structured in a way that aligned personal and institutional success with activities that we might call signal.
  • The landscape changed in ways that made it hard for the institutions (and the individuals within them) to continue succeeding using the established strategies. Specifically, these environments evolved in ways that made signal a scarce commodity at the same time the systems were expanding.
  • Both environments adapted by cultivating new structures and processes that were able to survive on noise.

How Can We Return American Media to the Promised Land of Signal?

Maybe we can’t. The media genie running amok in America is a big, powerful one, and you can rest assured it ain’t going back in the bottle without the mother of all throwdowns.

Still, the damage that the Noise Media is wreaking on our society is intolerable – worse in nearly every respect than what has happened in the world of LitCrit, and I think I made clear how bad that is in part 1 – and we’d be advised to contemplate how we can at least boost our signal-to-noise ratio in the right direction. To this end, there are two things that need to happen.

First, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (because this seems to be my answer to everything), we have to dramatically increase our emphasis on education. Specifically, we need to cultivate stronger critical thinking skills. The reason is simple. An enlightened mind has a much lower tolerance for foolishness. The reason that media have been able to profit off of inane programming is because our culture has so aggressively pursued the anti-intellectual. While I’m not attempting to let the pimps who program our media outlets off the hook here, it is not untrue to suggest that their actions are a logical response to what the marketplace has become.

Second, we revive the public interest standard and make it the centerpiece for every deliberation that happens regarding media in the US. The public interest, not the corporate interest. Reagan’s FCC hacks, Mark Fowler and Davide Brenner, said back in the early ’80s that “the public’s interest, then, defines the public interest.” Which is a slightly more academic way of saying that “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” It was self-evidently stupid when they said it then, and the only thing that has changed in the intervening years is that now we have even more evidence to prove it. But thanks to their efforts on behalf of Reagan’s anti-public communications policy, we now live in a nation where “journalism” and “pandering to the lowest common denominator” mean fundamentally the same thing.

Perhaps the system has evolved in precisely the way we should have expected. But it has evolved into something that does not serve our society or its future best interest. The sooner we understand why it has spun out of control, the sooner we can begin taking action to transform it once again, this time into something worthy of a culture that regards itself as the most advanced on Earth.

<h3>The Signal-to-Noise Journey of American Media</h3>
The 20th Century represented a Golden Age of Institutional Journalism. The Yellow Journalism wars of the late 19th Century gave way to a more responsible mode of reporting built on ethical and professional codes that encouraged fairness and “objectivity.” (Granted, these concepts, like their bastard cousin “balance,” are not wholly unproblematic. Still, they represented a far better way of conducting journalism than we had seen before.) It’s probably not idealizing too much to assert that reporting in the Cronkite Era, for instance, was characterized by a commitment to rise above partisanship and manipulation. The journalist was expected to hold him/herself to a higher standard and to serve the public interest. These professionals – and I have met a few who are more than worthy of the title – believed they had a <em>duty</em> to search for the facts and to present them in a fashion that was as free of bias as possible.In other words, their careers, like that of Claude Shannon, were devoted to maximizing the signal in the system – the system here being the “marketplace of ideas.”

By now the critical reader has probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned money. Said reader might suggest that I wax a little too starry-eyed, that journalism was <em>always</em> about ratings, circulation and profit. The really cynical response might say – as I  myself have said – that even our greatest reporters were doing nothing more than selling product. True enough.

However, the issue here is about the assumptions involved regarding the path to profit. In Cronkite World, the reporter (and editor and publisher) assumed that success had something to do with what I’m here calling signal. You attracted a larger audience and sold more soap if you did a better job investigating, digging, presenting the public with <em>facts</em>. When you did a better job than your competitor at providing the audience with relevant, meaningful, accurate information that helped them understand and interact with their environment, then you and your employer would be more successful.

That is, your success in the marketplace was intimately tied to your professional ability. <em>Success was a function of signal.</em>

<strong>Somewhere along the way that changed, though.</strong> Here’s what I think happened.

First, in Uncle Walter’s day you had three channels (networks plus local affiliates), you had a couple local newspapers and a local radio station or two. If you grew up in a place like I did (Winston-Salem, NC), you likely had no more than six sources of information available to you on a given day. If there were a major story to be discovered at the national level, the competition to break it was going to include CBS, NBC, ABC, UPI, AP, Reuters maybe, and that’s about it. If the story was local it was down to a couple local papers and the three local affiliates.

That’s a comparatively small field of competitors, and given the number of things that happen in a given week there were usually enough scoops to go around. So to a significant degree, it was possible to make a living off of signal.

What about today? How many potential sources for news are available to you? Legacy networks; national papers; cable news channels (and cable “news” channels); ubiquitous access not only to your local paper and TV affiliates, but to <em>all</em> local affiliates and papers; online alt.news outlets; blogs – millions and millions of blogs; advocacy group sites; and a plethora of other channels, including e-mail (and lists), newsgroups and forums, mobile (like Twitter), and on and on we go. Even if we assume that there’s 10 times as much interesting news to be scooped than their used to be, the competition for those scoops has grown at an insane pace. If you’re in the news business, you probably find that the ratio of news to competitors is dozens of times worse than it was when Cronkite sat in Katie Couric’s chair. Yes, several outlets are still trying – a couple national papers, AP, Reuters, etc. But that’s about it. Everybody else (Scholars & Rogues included) is trying to attract the attention of the public, and very few of the models in use rely on what we might see as a traditional approach to news and reporting.

So. The pursuit of signal ain’t cheap or easy. The return rate on that investment is hardly guaranteed. And even if you are doing pretty well at old-style reporting, competition for eyeballs is simply ridiculous. A news agency, therefore, that insists on the old signal-based model is fighting an uphill battle.
<h3>Welcome to the Jungle</h3>
As with the problem faced by the academy, described by Katherine Hayles in part 1, media businesses had (have, and always will have) an institutional need to make a profit. Whether there’s actually enough signal to go around notwithstanding, it’s easy to see how the perception might evolve in a corporate boardroom that the traditional approach is a losing game. In this brave new world of 500 channels and seemingly infinite numbers of Internet-delivered information (and disinformation) sites, it’s harder than ever to attract necessary revenues the old-fashioned way.

The conclusion: if there’s 10,000 guys stomping all around Signal Lake, hundreds of boats jockeying for every square inch of surface, a million more casting off the bridge, all fighting over two or three half-assed little fish, then maybe we ought to wander over to the River of Noise. Something is <i>always</i> biting there.

If my theory is right, then, our media institutions are behaving the way they are out of a certain logic. Not an admirable or productive logic, but something that makes sense if you’re looking for cause and effect. To wit: the prevailing perception that there’s a greater return – a massively greater return – on noise generation than there is signal hunting. Putting a hard-nosed investigative reporter on the trail of an important story for a few weeks or months, that’s an iffy investment. Employing enough reporters to reliably fill up the 24/7/4ever news cycle, that’s expensive. How much easier it is to simply trot Matt Lauer and Ann Curry out there to primp and blather like drooling idiots over the latest “development” in the Michael Jackson “story.”

The results? Well, the networks are making money, aren’t they?

So, if I can try and pull all this together:<ul><li> Once upon a time signal ruled, in both academia and the news media. Different animals, to be sure, but their worlds were structured in a way that aligned personal and institutional success with activities that we might call signal. </li>
<li> The landscape changed in ways that made it hard for the institutions (and individuals within them) to continue succeeding. Specifically, these environments evolved in ways that made signal a scarce commodity. </li>
<li> Both environments adapted by cultivating new structures and processes that were able to survive on noise. </li></ul>
<h3>How Can We Return American Media to the Promised Land of Signal?<h3>Well, maybe we can’t. The genie that has escaped the bottle is a big, powerful one, and you can rest assured it ain’t going back in the bottle without the mother of all fights.

Still, the damage that the Noise Media is wreaking on our society is intolerable – worse in nearly every respect than what has happened in the world of LitCrit, and I think I made clear how bad that is in part 1 – and we’d be advised to contemplate how we can at least boost our signal-to-noise ratio in the right direction. To this end, there are two things that need to happen.

First, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (because this seems to be my answer to everything), we have to dramatically increase our emphasis on education. Specifically, we need to cultivate stronger critical thinking skills. The reason is simple. An enlightened mind has a much lower tolerance for foolishness. The <i>reason</i> that media have been able to profit off of inane programming is because our culture has so aggressively pursued the anti-intellectual. While I’m not attempting to let the pimps who program our media outlets off the hook here, it is not untrue to suggest that their actions are a logical response to what the marketplace has become.

Second, we revive the public interest standard and make it the centerpiece for every deliberation that happens regarding media in the US. The <i>public</i> interest, not the <i>corporate</i> interest. Fowler and Brenner said, in the early ’80s, that “the public interest is what the public is interested in.” It was self-evidently stupid when they said it then, and the only thing that has changed in the intervening years is that now we have even more evidence to prove it.

Perhaps the system has evolved in precisely the way we should have expected. But it has evolved into something that does not serve our society or its future best interest. The sooner we understand why it has spun out of control, the sooner we can begin taking action to transform it once again, this time into something worthy of a culture that regards itself as the most advanced on Earth.

Categories: American Culture, Education, Internet/Telecom/Social Media, Journalism, Media/Entertainment, Politics/Law/Government, Scholarship/Theory, Science/Technology

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13 replies »

  1. Good article. Do not forget that Corporations now own the media. They are not going to report on anything that makes them look bad. Take General Electric as one example. They own NBC and MSNBC. There are some who suggest that GE has silenced Keith Olbermann. I will not get into the specifics here; a simple Google search can point one to the information. However, Olbermann has come out and said that there is no truth to the story.
    One can also find instances of Fox News Corp. being used by the Bush White House and the Pentagon as a propaganda arm. Until the media is once again independent, we will always have the noise.

  2. As a former journalist (daily newspaper editor, AP & UPI salaried correspondent) I find missing mention that virtually every significant journalist got his/her start in a newspaper.

    Further newspapers have been losing marketshare for the past 25++ years, long before cable TV or the internet came along.

    Faltering newspapers are gobbled up by larger corporations, losing any roots to the communities they serve. And now TV stations follow suit, reducing their roots to Main Street USA.

  3. I’m sorry Sam, but I don’t buy the education aspect of your argument. Isn’t it just as likely that a tolerance for foolishness, entertainment really, is a creation of the culture we’ve developed where people expect to be entertained or engaged by something — anything — constantly, regularly and right-God-damned-now?

    If we (and I mean that for the public as a whole) valued priorities like being informed and fairness in our media coverage over our entertainment, we would still be raising hell over Fowler and Brenner. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Education won’t make people care more, unless it’s one of those Soviet-style “re-education” camps.

  4. Walt, I don’t think you’d find much argument here about any of that. Several of the S&R writers have written about and lamented the demise of print news in past posts.

  5. It’s a sad state of affairs given that an adversarial, representative democracy is dependent on well-informed constituents. The noise of infotainment is much more manipulatable (yeah, maybe i did just make that up) by the political adversaries on high, which further endangers the health of a political system dependent on well-informed citizens. Imagine a situation like Watergate today. You can’t, because there would be no bi-partisan investigation nor even the journalism that might lead to it.

    But i’m not sure that we’ve progressed along a steady decline to the media hell we currently inhabit. There was a lot of noise during the Red Scare until Murrow cut through it with a strong signal.

    And i’ve been reading an interesting book about the history of Opium. Until the early 20th century, opium addicts were something to be pitied rather than feared, or a subset of immigrant communities with their strange and exotic ways. It was mostly media noise that transformed the addict (even little old Southern Belles) into dangerous criminals, which led the government to act against the substance with vigor. And that ended with most addicts becoming actual criminals.

    Unfortunately, noise feeds back more readily than signal in the media-government relationship.

  6. These two pieces helped me understand why there’s more money to be made in talking about the news than in reporting the news. Today, anyway.

  7. Walt: Outstanding points. Dr. Denny has written a bit on those issues in the past and hopefully will continue doing so.

    nader paul kucinich gravel: We’re not here so you’ll have a place to cut and paste incoherent rants.

    Tom: I don’t think the fact that we’ve let education succumb to the same corrosive “look! shiny things!” dynamics as I describe here really rebuts my point. Instead, I’d say your argument would be better put this way: “Yes, you’re right, and the same kind of thing may be happening in education. So we have to reform education significantly in order to make it work.” And on that point, we’d be wholly in agreement.

    Lex: “It’s a sad state of affairs given that an adversarial, representative democracy is dependent on well-informed constituents.” But this is PRECISELY THE WAY IT WAS DESIGNED. This was the basic assumption that the founders made in constructing our systems. It’s easy enough to look back at the 18th Century and see why they made these assumptions, but the fact is that they were wrong (or at least they were only correct within a narrow context) and we have now learned this the hard way. If we were starting over, that very assumption is the first thing we’d need to dynamite.

  8. Shannon and others have demonstrated that there is a relatively linear tradeoff among bandwidth (the amount of information one can push down a channel in a given time), power (how much energy is invested in operating the channel) and signal quality. In engineering this is applied to the physical characteristics of a channel, such as a satellite link or a piece of optical fiber, but your arguments suggest a useful analogy to broadcast economics. The broadcast monopoly of Cronkite’s heyday was characterized by low bandwidth (the need for only three networks to to produce only one 30-minute newscast a day, as opposed to filling a 24-hour news hole) and high power (the economic power of networks which viewed news as a loss-leading prestige product and a societal obligation for using the public airwaves). Consequently, quality could be high (skilled reporters, producers with the integrity to resist political pressure, broad news-gathering organizations) which resulted in high quality (in terms of “error rate” (accuracy), “signal to noise ratio” (significance) or any other metric). It’s no coincidence that after diluting the same economic power across the need to fill far more bandwidth Reasoner, Cronkite and Murrow have given way to Couric, Blitzer and Grace.

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