How To Fix 'The Media'
A guide to why everyone hates it, and activists are working to change it.
…is a complex beast. When we talk about ‘It’ — even when specifically pinpointing, for example, the dreaded 👻 ‘mainstream media’ 🧛— we’ve immediately lost all nuance and detail. (Which is surprising, given how reasonable and listen-y everyone is in the digital age.)
‘The Media’ is not only a huge number of different companies, people, financial structures, etc. It’s also a huge number of different media.
It could mean newsrooms. It could mean entertainment. It could mean the ‘tabloid’ press, the ‘broadsheet’ press, comedy, drama, TV news, film studios, the publishing industry, social media, tech giants, video games, Google, Substack, Medium…
Not only could you and I mean something entirely different when we say ‘The Media’, but I could mean something different in today’s conversation than I mean in tomorrow’s.
Yes, my work focuses on criticising ‘the media’ and changing it ‘for the better’. But this means about 73 different things. And while I agree that most media companies have shared structural issues to solve, I work in media, I know a lot of other people who do, and I respect their work. I’m a first-hand witness, and it’s simply not true that “all mainstream media is a scam”. (☠Then again I WOULD say that☠!)
So what is wrong with ‘it’? Before we discuss how to fix it, let’s do a whistle-stop tour outlining why many have lost trust in news, entertainment, and social media.
Journalism, on the whole, is more reliable than ever. Yet political polarisation is wider than ever — partly media-related, we’ll get to that — leading people on the left and the right to accuse ‘the media’ of bias.
Both liberal ‘elite’ media, and conservative ‘corporate’ media, have distinct flaws — and, by the way, all are often elitist and corporate, no matter which ‘wing’ they subscribe to.
No one has any money. Except, of course, they do — a handful of these companies are earning millions in revenue. But news is expensive to produce, and as a result of funding changes (again, we’ll get to that) companies have lost millions from revenue streams over the last few decades. This has resulted in bosses consistently choosing to make layoffs, and lower pay, for ever fewer journalists trying to deliver even more content to stay competitive.
As in any sector of society, those who went to the best schools and have had the most support are at a huge advantage, particularly in an industry that relies on unpaid internships and low-wage jobs centered in expensive cities.
Less money also results in the rise of ‘churnalism’ — articles that parrot the official government line, corporate press releases, or reporting from other outlets. So they may be accurate as per the facts given, but they aren’t original, power-challenging, or investigative.
Finally, there are downright illegal practices, such as phone-hacking. Tabloids regularly make stories up and have been accused of ‘abuse’ by writing salacious, bigoted stories and/or invading people’s private lives. The phone-hacking scandal in 2012 resulted in the unfinished Leveson Inquiry, and almost no change in press regulation.
Google and Facebook (alongside Apple and Amazon) are the “gatekeepers of commerce and communications” online. They have a ‘duopoly’ in the adtech industry (internet godfather Cory Doctorow now refers to them simply as ‘Googbook’. His blog is crucial for understanding the situation.)
This means they have cordoned off a tsunami of revenue that used to pay for public interest (i.e. the democracy-enhancing kind) journalism, hence the rise of churnalism. They say: “Free market! Can’t be helped.” We say: their duopoly rigs the system and needs breaking, and revenue needs to be redistributed.
The main reason that online advertising is so powerful is that these companies collect vast amounts of our data, allowing advertisers (and potentially, anyone who gets their hands on it, especially if Facebook sells it to them) to influence our commercial (and personal👇👇) behaviour.
Big Tech also purposely monopolises our attention, creating mental health issues. Social media companies, in particular, have spent billions understanding how to harness our psychological weaknesses, and using them to keep us glued to their apps. This is especially worrying in the case of children accessing devices at very young ages, who are especially vulnerable to online harms and addictive behaviours while their brains are most malleable.
Big Tech is doing little to stop wider social breakdown as a result of misuse. Algorithms foster posts and links that encourage political polarisation and outrage. Outrage keeps us engaged, and tech platforms are notoriously bad at policing abuses such as bigotry, harassment, and election interference, leading one Facebook whistleblower to admit she had ‘blood on her hands’.
Through the above monopolies and socio-economic rigging, many Big Tech companies are now wealthier and more powerful than the majority of countries. Governments are beginning to take this seriously, and the pressure on them to regulate these companies needs to be maintained.
The film and TV industry is an increasingly precarious and disparate place to work. Starting at the bottom and training your way up is still the norm for most, but as in journalism, places have become insecure, poorly paid, and largely freelance.
Freelance contracts are notoriously bad, particularly in TV. They often require you to waive your rights to working time regulations, legislation that ensures breaks and rest days. Freelancers spoke up about COVID-specific contracts recently, which sought to pay less than living wage as well as preventing people from getting other work while production was suspended.
Film and TV have been notorious hotbeds of bullying and harassment, with deeply entrenched power relations drawn along class lines, into rife sexism and racism. The nihilistic rhetoric of ‘sex sells’ has long been the acceptable face of an industry that has continually exploited women, and people of colour.
As an extension of this, media narratives have consistently told stories from a toxic viewpoint, perpetuating sexism, racism, and general bullshit from The Good Old Days.
Hopefully, it’s clear that all the above are related; not only to each other, but to wider struggles of work, equality, and governance across industries. The media is a reflection of, and driver in, wider society. And in engaging with other activists, I’ve found five areas that we are dedicated to working towards to address all the above issues.
What do I mean by a ‘better media industry’?
improved workers' rights and contracts across journalism/TV/film/publishing/tech etc.
an end to press intrusion into people’s private lives and to racist/misogynistic/xenophobic/classist and other oppressive rhetoric
diverse leadership, workforce, funding, and coverage
funding models that improve the quality of news, and ensure greater coverage of public interest stories and investigations
independent regulation of news, and big tech platforms (i.e. ensuring data privacy, accountability, curbing misinformation, etc.)
How You Can Contribute
Journalist and political comms-person James Schneider has said that the way for progressives to ‘win’ the 20s media battle is three-fold:
Controversy. We’re living in an attention economy. We have to shift attention to particular issues by getting noticed, which eventually shifts the wider editorial agenda. This doesn’t mean acting in bad faith or compromising on principles, just being consistently clear — and loud.
Narrative. Our narratives need to develop alongside, and in direct opposition to, corporate and/or conservative media narratives. We need to know and understand their attacks and be ready to weave those into our stories in a way that punctures them.
Build new media AND work within existing media. We need to build and support new truth-seeking outlets, as well as working within existing corporate media to support the fact-based journalism within it that does challenge power.
What I would add to this is direct support for workers: being transparent about pay and demanding transparency; joining unions, where this work is already being done; supporting existing campaigns. This means work in-person to build supportive communities, engage in direct action, and seek policy and legislation. Sorting out rights and money will empower people, filtering into combating prejudice, abuse, bias, misinformation, churnalism…
I’ll always share useful campaigns, opportunities, and insights in the Friday newsletter - sign up below. If we can sort out the power dynamics, everything else follows.