This I Believe

Herbert - Mooresville, North Carolina
Entered on September 12, 2007

A life spent planning complex systems has led me to believe that the mistrust between “the media” and the public can be fixed by simply adding sunlight. Sadly, our prime resource in self-governance pits three interests against each other: owners stress short-term financial results and push news professionals toward sensation. News consumers have too little voice in content selection and quality.

The Internet admits diverse opinion on a given issue but news media still determine what is an issue. What goes unreported can go unchallenged as a matter of journalistic tradition or personal perspective.

Whenever an establishment—however benign—believes it understands better than the public what that public needs to know, liberty is menaced. Trusting the public to participate in content selection and depth of coverage is a radical notion—but it’s essential to a valid media feedback process.

Media professionals think purchase options—consumer ability to choose among stations and publications—is adequate feedback. But the First Amendment’s protection implies that news is more than just a commodity.

History shows that institutions with the ability to manage feedback about themselves, do so and degenerate as a consequence. The core of media distrust is their ability to dismiss continually the public’s low regard.

A workable feedback system to reconcile the tension would have these characteristics:

Feedback would be beyond the ability of editors to constrain it. (Structuring it otherwise would be like clearing presidential reporting through the White House press office.)

Feedback would need to have about the same geographic footprint as the medium being critiqued—local, national or global.

Media feedback should be largely numeric, and based on polling. If Percent approval is a valid metric for U.S. presidents it should also suffice to rate the editors and station managers whose work we experience first-hand.

Polling-based feedback should be iterative and perpetual so news consumers can see for themselves whether a medium’s credibility is trending better or worse—and whether it heeds or ignores the feedback it gets.

Comparison adds meaning, so polling should measure medium against medium—and also rank media against the other establishments in society. Whom the public believes most and whom least at a given time should be common knowledge—archived and widely discussed—just as presidential approval is now.

To be really effective, anecdotal and poll-based feedback should be published immediately and prominently. Posting a restaurant’s sanitation rating out of sight, or months after the inspection, would be pointless. News consumers also need timely, open access to media rating information.

Because they provide the knowledge we rely on to govern ourselves, media should be at least as open to sunlight and as visibly subject to public criticism as governments. For, if we can’t assure the quality of the news we base our lives and votes on, we can’t meaningfully consider ourselves to be self-governing.