Should we regulate the press?

I am really having a hard time these days to continue to believe what I read in the press. There are two reasons for this. One, lots of journalists are simply not well-informed about what they are writing about and copy-paste or collect too quickly from other sources without fact-checking. Two, the press becomes more and more a partisan platform for media moguls and their parties. In order to restore trust and objectivity in the press, do we need to regulate the press?

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Fake news is the buzzword nowadays. In a time when some presidents (particularly one president) spend more time on Twitter writing statements that reveal a level of ignorance that passes the threshold of laughable and enters the territory of endangering the rest of the world, it does not come as a surprise that some of the press is not much better. However, while it is clear that the majority of the American voters know that Trump is simply an uninformed boaster who only cares about his own bank account, they still need to get their news from some place and in so doing have to place at least some degree of trust in the press.

New York Times Online headlines 14th November 2019
New York Times Online headlines 14th November 2019
Fox News Online headlines 14th November 2019
Fox News online headlines 14th November 2019

However, the press is not innocent either. For example, the New York Times headlines from 14th November 2019 convince us that the impeachment is well under way, that there is basically no option but to impeach the president. Instead, the Fox News headline from 14th November state exactly the opposite. The press cannot become any more partisan than that. But who is right and who is wrong? Or is there no right and wrong? Is it simply a question of opinion? Or is one side more objective and tries to state the facts, while the other is simply vomiting out fake news?

Lately, when one reads the news, one issue that repeately crops up is the conflict between China and Hong Kong protestors. US news outlets repeatedly bash China for mistreating the protestors, and the European press has jumped on the wagon, claiming that there are hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the street. So I asked several friends of mine, natives from Hong Kong, about the situation. They all say that the protests are rather small and contained, and only include at most some hundred student protestors. How can the international press get the story so wrong if everything was supposed to be really well-researched? It is no wonder then that trust in the popular press is fading. According to a recent poll, only 44% of news readers believe what the press publishes.  

In 2013, Murdoch and Lord Rothermere, owned 52% of online and print news publications in the United Kingdom. In comparison to the Republican-based Fox News and the more Democrats-oriented New York Times, Murdoch’s newspapers support whomever Murdoch favors, shifting support back and forth between Labour and Conservatives. A similar example is the press under Berlusconi in Italy, or Putin in Russia. It is well-known that both own(ed) their national press and, unsurprisingly, the press is in full support of their owners. Whoever owns the press owns the government, owns the election, and thus owns the people.

A big problem is that a partisan press leads to what is called the confirmation bias. Readers choose the news outlet that is in line with their own personal opinions, and thereby repeatedly confirm their own position. This, over time, leads to very extreme opinions, if not a split in society. Thus, the more partisan the press, as it is the case in the USA, the more extreme will be the opinions of the general public, up to a point where there are essentially only two parties sharing power, only free market or social economy proponents, right-wing or left wing ideologists, pro-gun lobbyists or gun opponents. This split in society produces a rift that requires a cure.

The UK has tried to impose official standards for journalism, which has repeatedly failed. There is a UK industry’s own watchdog, the Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO). Inaccuracies or wrong information in the press can be reported and, if that report is deemed correct, then the newspaper needs to publish a correction or may even be subjected to a fine. But this process takes often several weeks, and the immediate impact of an article in press is usually what counts. Remember, for example, the publication of the fabricated study that falsely linked vaccination to autism. Newspapers quickly spread the word, there was a substantial reduction in vaccination which subsequently led to several deaths and huge welfare costs. Even though the original study has been retracted, and even though all the scientific evidence suggests otherwise, there is a significant amount of parents that still believe that vaccination causes autism. If regulation is supposed to be introduced, it must thus be a priori, and not some correction in some footnote after some weeks when the damage is done.

So what can be done? As Robert Skidelsky writes, “The media are still needed to protect us against abuses of state power; but we need the state to protect us from abuses of media power.” This could suggest something in the lines of an independent governmental watchdog. Lord Leveson in the UK has prominently argued for that. However, quite clearly just as there are no true independent central banks (trust me, I worked in one), there cannot be truly independent press watchdogs. Just look at how Trump has been replacing, in nearly every governmental organization, the head figures with his underlings. Who can guarantee that someone like Trump cannot do this in a supposedly independent government watchdog?

Without a doubt, we have to have freedom of opinion. This is essential to our way of life, and it is a prerequisite for any discussion and the basis of argumentation. In far too many cases where the press was severely restricted of its freedom of opinion have we seen democracy being replaced by autocracy. Just look at Russia, or Nazi Germany, or Lower freedom of press is associated with higher levels of corruption. It is thus clear that restricting as to what can be written, or is allowed to be written, has very high costs, and this power can be easily abused by a government that wants to misinform. However, as Hannah Arendt wrote in her 1967 essay Truth and Politics, “[f]reedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute.” Thus, a way needs to be found to guarantee that a much larger share of factual information is being reported in the press. The point is that the press should not opinionate but inform.

Editors matter a lot. For example, you will have no chance to get a position at Fox News if you are a left-wing or socialist journalist. This thus, by necessity, makes Fox News an outlet for right-wing voices and can in no way lead to an objective assessment in the articles published by Fox News. Hence, one possible solution is to intervene when it comes to choosing editors of the press. If an editor has to be objective and not a partisan supporter of the press outlet they are supposed to run, then this has strong implications for the content of that outlet.

An additional option is to use quality labels for newspapers and journalists. One can imagine two simple approaches, both involving the creation of a watchdog. This watchdog would preferably be the general public, i.e. readership. The first one is a label for newspapers and/or journalists about how opinionated they are versus how much they rely on arguments. The idea would be that, for each author (and potentially newspaper), there is an opinion button. Readers can choose, on a scale from say 1-10, how opinionated the article is vs how objectively it has been written. By and large, with enough votes, authors will receive an official rating on their opinionatedness. This should bring more objective writing into the press, or at least inform readers about how opinionated a journalist in general writes.

The complementary approach would be to have a watchdog that is as independent as possible and studies the amount of fake or misleading information that is being spread by a newspaper or journalist. Together with every article the press would then have to publish a quality rating of the author according to that author’s share of fake or misleading information that (s)he spreads. In general it should be possible to classify fake or misleading information. For example, when Trump writes “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” then this is a clear case of misleading the public with dangerous and fake thoughts. A statement like that would thus be flagged. A statement such as “I believe that the concept of global warming was created by…” is different, as it is clearly a personal opinion. At the same time it doesn’t carry the same weight as the previous statement and it is quite clear for laymen that here the author’s personal opinion is decisive.

One could thus imagine that each journalist would receive reputation points over time according to how opinionated and how well-researched (fact-checked) his or her writing is. This reputation scale would then be published with each article (at the top) that the author writes so that readers can anticipate what to expect from the article. Naturally this is not a fault-proof approach, but it could be a first step into the direction of reducing and punishing the spread of fake and false news and minimize opinion in the press in favor of more objective arguments.

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