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Interview: How Dollars and Cents Propel Sensational Media Coverage

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“I suggest that the ebbing of polarization has already been occurring. We’re just not aware of it because of what’s presented to us in the media. If you look at the polling numbers, Democrats and Republicans are minorities; the plurality of Americans identify as independents.”

Professor Antony Davies, an economist at Duquesne University, joins Erich Prince to discuss his August 2018 op-ed at The Philadelphia Inquirer on sensationalism in the media and to share his thoughts more generally on how economic incentives have potentially been driving hyperbole and partisanship in the press.

I’d like to start off by asking you about your August 6th Philadelphia Inquirer piece, “Fox News, MSNBC make the world seem scarier than it is.” You draw attention to this idea that sensationalism is perhaps what sells. We had certain comments, for example, during the election 2016 by various media executives saying they were benefitting from some of the spectacles during the campaign. What is the degree to which this desire for clicks is driving media outlets to choose to give airtime to the sensational?

I would imagine it’s driving it to a significant degree. We’ve got to remember that newspapers and television stations are all driven by the number of subscribers or viewers they can attract. In turn, if viewers and subscribers are attracted by things that are sensational, there’s an automatic economic incentive to deliver that sort of thing. Now I’m not suggesting that it’s going to go to the extremes where all you’re going to get is fake news. You might get some of that in certain places, but it’s like any other product; it caters itself to the desires of the customer. If the customer desires sensationalism, that’s what it will deliver. By the same token, if the consumer wants truth, even if the truth is bland, that’s what the media will deliver. It’s just like any other profit-driven business.

Is there any hope for those of us who are a little more idealistic about prioritizing careful thinking and analysis of the facts first rather than the sensation. Do you see the tide turning there?

I think there’s a natural equilibrium that you reach because you’ll get to a point at which there’s so much sensationalism out there that the new thing that’s sensational is pointing out the fact that this stuff isn’t real. For example, if you look at our op-ed, the reason we wrote it is because it’s interesting. Why is it interesting? Because the truth tends to get less press than the sensational stuff does. So, kind of in a perverse way, the truth starts to become sensational

How does this relate to partisan media coverage? We hear a lot about the so-called echo chambers where people are receiving their news from more and more partisan sources. There was a 2015 study out of Washington State University, which tried to draw a connection between the 1996 Telecommunications Act and the rise of these partisan news sources. The authors suggest that perhaps the Act sought to open the market to competition but, larger companies came in and bought smaller and more independent outlets. And with that consolidation came more partisan coverage. Is that a line of thinking that you’re perhaps sympathetic to?

I would imagine that that might have an effect. There are economies of scale with the media, so the bigger you can get, the lower your cost of production is, on average—and so the more profitable you become. And if that’s the case, then you will tend to drift more and more toward one end of the spectrum or the other, attempting to attract as many viewers as you can, which you probably end up with.

I would imagine the economic forces at play here. What you end up with are two polar extremes in the media. It’s similar, in many respects, to how we ended up with two political parties. Each political party is trying to do the same thing, which is to gather as large a market share as it can. In the case of the parties, we count market share in terms of voters as opposed to dollars. But it’s the same idea. So what you do is you gather more and more people by reaching out more and more to the extreme wings.

So these days, we regularly see polling indicating that people are pretty dissatisfied with the media in general. Yet they generally continue to consume their outlet of choice. Is there perhaps a parallel between this phenomenon and say the fact that Congress overall has an approval rating of 17%, but individual members can still be quite popular. Is there a similar situation going on when it comes to perceptions of media in the aggregate, as contrasted to loyalty to a particular source of choice?

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I’m sure there’s a bit of that. Someone might say, “The media is outrageous. Why can’t it all be like Fox. Or why can’t it all be like MSNBC?” Or your outlet of choice. Again all of this is driven by the consumers. To the extent that people’s attitudes change, the media will change to follow it because they’re going to follow the dollars wherever the dollars go. One of things that’s happening here is that people are at a point where they no longer communicate with each other. I encounter this frequently. Someone will see me and say that since I’m an academic, I must be liberal. He associates with me all sorts of things I’d never say. Conversely, a person hears I’m an economist and assumes I must be a conservative and then attributes to me a whole bunch of things I would never say. But I think we do this to each other. We try and figure out where the guy I’m talking to is politically. Is he on the left or on the right? Then, we ignore everything he’s got to say because we just assume we know what he’s going to say. And we already have our responses to it. So we end up not communicating so much as monologuing at each other.

Given that polarization has ebbed and flowed at various points in American history, is there a reason to expect that we should start to see a decrease in polarization soon? I often cite the talk of a possible fusion ticket between John Kasich and John Hickenlooper gaining steam as one piece of evidence. Recently, we’ve seen Ben Sasse considering leaving the GOP, and the tributes to John McCain often focused on his bipartisan streak. Will polarization slow soon and, consequently, will the media follow suit? 

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Yes, the media outlets will follow suit. I suggest that the ebbing of polarization has already been occurring. We’re just not aware of it because of what’s presented to us in the media. If you look at the polling numbers, Democrats and Republicans are minorities; the plurality of Americans identify as independents. So this has been growing over time. There’s this growing center of people who perceive themselves neither as left nor right, but they haven’t become large enough yet to counteract the media. And so we perceive that Americans are half Republican half Democrat, but that’s not it at all. It’s about a quarter Republican a quarter Democrat, and the rest of us in the center: about 40% of us in the center.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.

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