Will Rogers once said, “All I know is just what I read in the papers, and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.” It is now fashionable to degrade the media for obscuring verifiable facts that is in the public interest to be made aware in favour of providing amusement and enjoyment to its audience. However, it is important to recognise that media is not a homogenous collective and the priorities of the media cannot be reduced to a simple dichotomy. From mainstream media to para-journalism, to New Media, various forms of media have varying priorities, and this is dependent on how they generate profit and the desires of their target audience.
While mainstream media, which refers collectively to various large mass news media that are capable of influencing a large number of people, and both reflect and shape prevailing currents of thought, does at times obfuscate the truth, this may not be because it prioritises entertainment or strictly speaking the pleasure of its readership. It is arguably true that mainstream media sources have devoted more resources to entertainment news, rather than news that strictly concerns public interests. A quick perusal of The Straits Times suggests that more sections of the newspaper are dedicated to ‘lifestyle news’, which covers celebrity news, travel tips and food recommendations or recipes. The fact that major mainstream news sites like the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) and Cable News Network (CNN) ran widespread coverage on a plump rat being extracted from a manhole in Germany suggests that amusing readers has perhaps become a greater priority than ever before. Whether it has overtaken bringing the truth to light, however, is still under question. Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that mainstream media does also tend towards sensationalism and ‘excessive coverage’ in order to sustain their viewership. For instance, following the release of a report on carcinogenic processed meat by the World Health Organization, mainstream media coverage of the report and its contents were overblown and often distorted the findings of the report. Even The Straits Times is guilty of sensationalizing reports of crime. This is presumably because mainstream media sources, especially those which use online mediums, tend to sensationalize important news to get ‘clicks and likes’, which in turn drives up their advertisement revenue. That said, while sensationalism distorts the truth, this does not directly mean that entertainment is prioritised by the media source. In this case, the angle taken by mainstream media sources hardly brings any pleasure to its viewership due to the nature of the news reported. Nonetheless, for every demonstration of poor journalistic quality by mainstream media, the same mainstream media sources demonstrate their commitment to the truth. CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, for instance, was evicted from the White House in November 2018 in an admirable attempt to call out and question President Donald Trump about ‘half-truths’ peddled throughout the course of his presidency. Instead of a simple dichotomy between entertainment and truth, I venture to argue that mainstream media are simply peddling agendas, with entertainment and truth alternatively taking precedence depending on how it fits into their agenda.
Applying the same set of criteria to para-journalism, which refers to journalism that is heavily coloured by the opinions of individual reporters, it appears that this form of media seems to prioritize entertainment over the truth. ‘Tabloids’ which fall under this category care little about public affairs, and instead veer into stories about everyday life: about its disruptions and exaltations, about crime, illness, the celebrity, the damsel in distress, the hero and the rescue. They are about unapologetically appealing to the emotions of the public, and glossing over the complexities of public life. Amal Clooney, renowned international humanitarian lawyer, enjoyed extensive coverage for ‘showing off’ her ‘baby bump’ and her ‘courtroom attire’ at a court hearing about the Yemeni humanitarian crisis. Clearly, para-journalists pay little heed to more important issues in their bid to feed the insatiable need of their audience for entertainment and gossip. Against the backdrop of a parliament flailing in the face of Brexit, tabloids like the Daily Express have instead chosen to cover Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle and her many controversies, even touting her as ‘Duchess Difficult’. Are these media sources at least accurate in their reporting (never mind their obsession with covering the glitzy and glamorous) or do they compromise the truth in their pursuit of pleasure? It appears that tabloids often pay lip-service to the notion of truth – the feud narrative between Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton has been thoroughly debunked by Buckingham Palace, and rumours about her being difficult with staff have not been verified with empirical evidence. It appears that parajournalism is a form of media which has taken its desire for entertaining material to the extreme, and completely forsaken the truth in the process. Unlike mainstream media, which often pushes a political agenda to further their own interests, para-journalists simply benefit from a readership that constantly desires entertainment. It would thus make sense for such forms of media to prioritize entertainment over telling the truth.
Finally, I venture to argue that New Media, which refers to interactive digital media that incorporates two-way communication, tends to prioritise telling the truth over the amusement of its readership. Whether it successfully does so is another question. Alternative media like Wikipedia and Wikileaks for instance, have presenting the truth at the heart of what they do. Wikipedia allows its curious readership to discover the truth about a wide range of topics under the sun, whereas Wikileaks publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources with the intention of challenging narratives peddled by mainstream media. Evidently, rather than creating a fictional narrative that is meant to amuse, alternative media prefers to challenge conventional narratives with the intention of eventually uncovering the truth. This is because Wikipedia profits off telling the truth as users who trust its reliability and believe in its purpose donate an amount of USD $15 on average. That being said, social media platforms, which are also included under the umbrella term of ‘New Media’, are also in danger of compromising the truth for entertainment. The nature of social media platforms and their business model means that algorithms pick up on the preferences of individual users, and thereafter promote articles or advertisements that it believes these individual users are inclined towards. This extends towards other issues in the public sphere when algorithms used by social media platforms contribute to confirmation bias; users are fed articles that reaffirm their existing views, which to a certain extent reaffirms them and brings about pleasure, be it in the form of self-righteous anger or otherwise. 47% of Conservatives are likely to see Facebook posts aligned to their own views, according to a Pews Research report. Again, as mediums under the umbrella term of ‘New Media’ are so diverse in their motivations, whether New Media prioritises the truth over entertainment depends on how these motivations fit into their business model and align themselves with the profit incentive.
In a world where large media platforms seem increasingly obsessed with the hilarity of the trivial, and increasingly eager to broadcast their interest, it may appear that entertainment value has displaced the truth as a priority of the media. I venture to argue, however, that media networks are diverse and like individuals, cannot be tarred with the same brush. Their priorities are predicated on the priorities of their readership and their priorities as profit-generating businesses; if the public desires entertainment over truth, this is what the media will provide, for after all, we get the media that we deserve.