Confronting media gerrymandering

This year may be the year that journalists, scholars, and foundation-types squarely face a problem that’s largely escaped notice: what I’ll call “media gerrymandering.”

Political gerrymandering leaves many places locked into one-party control. If a district is solidly Republican, let’s say, local Democrats have little incentive to invest in efforts to listen to, respond to, or to put up much of a fight to claim they can better represent the people in that distinct. Increasingly, a similar dynamic is playing out in the way media organizations pursue or ignore demographically and politically segmented audiences.

Commercial news markets no longer incentivize outlets to pursue broad and cross-partisan audiences; they push instead toward loyal and relatively homogeneous ones. This means that many of today’s most well-funded, mainstream news organizations pour resources and efforts into pursuing audiences profiled as affluent, highly educated, and, at least in many cases, Democrat-leaning (if only because Democratic audiences are perceived as easier to reach). Conservative institutions, by contrast, pour resources into courting audiences profiled as conservatives or potential conservatives. The under-resourced group of openly left media target audiences profiled as left and, in most cases, highly educated. This educational skew is worth noting because conservatives have invested in building tabloid media brands while their opponents have not kept pace in this genre.

Still, across the board, the current media landscape (including the digital startups so frequently lauded as lodestars of innovation) favors wealthier and more highly-educated audiences. One fine-grained analysis comes from a 2015 study that explored news inequities across the media economies of three New Jersey communities. Researchers found the wealthiest, most highly educated, and most white community had 23 times as many stories produced per capita than the least wealthy community with the fewest college graduates and smallest portion of whites.

If you think media markets simply respond to consumer demand, you might not be troubled by news segmentation along partisan or demographic lines. You may think people seek out media that reflects their pre-existing interests and biases — so inequities and partisan divides must be driven by demand forces external to media institutions. If social groups are ideologically fixed — say, rural whites are inherently conservative, or college-educated women inherently progressive, or people without a college education are simply not interested in political news — media gerrymandering might not matter much so much.

But what if political identities and interests are more fluid? Consider an analogy. Let’s imagine — and we hardly need to push deep into the land of make-believe here — that prestigious colleges focus their recruiting efforts overwhelmingly on students from affluent, highly-educated communities. And let’s say they curate an atmosphere most conducive to the tastes and proclivities of young people coming from such backgrounds. Then these institutions serve to perpetuate and amplify class stratification, with or without discriminatory admissions practices.

As news organizations pursue segmented audiences and calibrate the tone of their coverage to suit their niche, we’re seeing something similar in terms of escalating division and stratification.

The familiar model for news outlets trying to reach broad news audiences comes from the early-to-mid-20th century. This “high modern” journalism centered on claims of objectivity, and it was predicated on a vision of an undifferentiated mass audience. News outlets could claim to be “for the people” without needing to specify in much detail who “the people” were supposed to be. In actuality, this meant a reporting force composed largely of educated white men, prioritizing the interests of audiences most similar to them, while staking a claim to represent the American people at large.

Claims to represent a featureless and universal public interest face far more skepticism today. If news organizations want to reach popular and heterogeneous audiences, they have to think in terms of building diverse coalitions, not a mass audience. They need to fight for perceived legitimacy from each group making up that coalition.

Much of that fight will hinge on how successfully news organizations can make the case to represent each coalitional partner. How do different communities see themselves reflected in the media workforce? Do they see their community playing a dignified role in journalism’s stories of public life? Do they feel journalists respect and care about people like them? Grappling with these questions will lead to alternatives to the high modern model of a press that stakes its legitimacy only on claims to be an enlightened trustee looking out for everyone’s best interests.

There’s no easy way out of media gerrymandering. It’s not premised primarily on the biases of individual journalists or even on the prerogative of particular organizations. It’s baked into the pull of major revenue sources, whether those be digital advertising, subscriptions, and or even the impact metrics often used to evaluate foundation-funded news projects. Confronting it will require deep thought and debate about media policy that can make news institutions less dependent on market forces. This will also require creative experimentation, searching for ways to engage and earn the trust of diverse coalitions.

Let’s hope these efforts start now — with gusto!

Anthony Nadler is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College.

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