Journalism’s allergy to substantive regulation

News publishers want more power, and less accountability. And water is still wet.

A jumble of letters, spelling "fake news"

Misinformation is a big deal. Hate online is a big deal. And as the public catches up to their reach and impact, we’ll see more and more talk about regulation of media.

Interestingly, news organizations love talking about regulating Facebook. But journalists, and their overlords, are allergic to talking about regulating news.

So allergic are they, that some think that plain old media criticism is fascism.

Meanwhile, I’m tired of hearing about how media education will help save individuals from misinformation. “Buyer beware” is not a policy approach.1

We need a systemic approach to misinformation, and hate. But whenever policy issues arise, journalists return to their tired frames of “free speech” and the “evil government.”

I don’t know what the answers are yet, but here are a few productive ideas to further the conversation.

There is no right to amplification

Librarians might choose to keep an odious book on their shelf. They might even keep it behind the desk and let people sign it out. That’s what libraries do; they’re archivists.

News orgs are not libraries. News orgs, and journalists, are amplifiers. And although individuals might have rights to free speech, there is no right to amplify.

Understanding the dangerous power of repetition and amplification helps us get the difference between some guy on the street saying harmful stuff, and Maclean’s doing it in their taxpayer subsidized magazine.

Industries hate regulation

Every industry hates regulation. They resist it. They hire lawyers, and lobbyists, and advertisers and fight regulation.

Here on the West Coast, for example, industries dumped tonnes of PCBs into water. PCBs have a really long half life and also serious effects on marine life (and humans). So regulation was a no-brainer, except the industry fought tooth and nail to resist it.

Something else to think about here is the history of industries claiming to regulate themselves as a way of avoiding public oversight. Journalism has an interesting history of weak self-regulation, to avoid substantive regulation.

This is so deeply embedded in news, that press freedom has practically collapsed to mean self-regulation. Press freedom has become the right that news reserves to exercise poor judgment, say racist things, promote hate, and misinform the public about serious economic and environmental matters.

Public accountability

For decades, legacy press (The Globe and Mail and The National Post, for example) have been attacking government and public policy, framing taxation as immoral, and regulatory laws as government overreach. This rightwing narrative is so deeply ingrained in news that headlines have normalized the language of “tax burden” and “tax relief” which are actually loaded terms. Most people don’t even see how skewed these frames are.

Because of the success of this narrative trend, news publishers will want to stay in the frame of “government regulation,” “red tape,” and the “nanny state,” to avoid substantive regulation.

As readers we need to resist these frames; we’re not well served by these narratives. Journalism is a public good. It’s a commons that we need to protect.

I think the frame of public accountability is one way we can claim the social licence required to bring substantive regulation to journalism.

  1. Maybe, maybe, widespread inoculation curricula constitutes a policy approach. There seem to be mixed results on the success of inoculating people against misinformation, especially regarding the decay rate of effectiveness. Also, sometimes I worry that inoculation is the misinformation. For more on inoculation theory, see this meta-analysis.