Last week, the Society of Professional Journalists hosted a discussion on “Why Media Should Care about Net Neutrality,” co-sponsored by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A panel of experts discussed the importance of net neutrality to journalists, how accurately media have covered the issue, and whether the issue is related to the First Amendment or free speech. Among many salient points made, there were two main takeaways: (1) It is imperative for the media to get it right when discussing net neutrality, and (2) The majority of the media don’t get it right.
Overwhelmingly, the panelists – each of whom had diverse views on how the FCC should handle the Open Internet proceeding – lauded the balanced coverage of trade press and national publications such as Broadcasting and Cable, Communications Daily, and The Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, they lamented the biased and comparatively uninformed coverage in smaller publications from younger, inexperienced journalists with very limited expertise or basic understanding of the subject matter.
A Discussion that Gets Lost in Translation
When Communications Daily Editor and panel moderator Jonathan Make asked the panelists whether there were any demonstrable faults they’d seen propagated in the media, answers were varied and touched on many problems with the way media coverage portrays elements of the debate. One of the biggest issues the majority of the panelists pointed to was the difficulty in framing the complex aspects of the debate in a way that is understandable for readers, but also doesn’t oversimplify the issue. Unfortunately, according to many of the panelists, oversimplification runs rampant in this debate.
MMTC Vice President and Chief Research and Policy Officer Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee specifically took issue with journalists often conflating different aspects of net neutrality, reporting on separate issues as if they are the same, and ultimately complicating rather than clarifying the discussion. “Journalists need to make this distinction between prioritization. I find that to be a muddied conversation when it comes to reasonable network management versus user-prioritized content. It’s like they’re all just talking about this as if it’s just one thing, and they have different implications. So I think journalists clarifying that would be very interesting.”
Professor and Dean of the University of Maryland Merrill College of Journalism Lucy Dalglish agreed, adding, “I’m a journalist and a lawyer, and one of the tricks to covering this is to translate it right.”
Daniel Alvarez, Legal Advisor to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, noted that the problem is worse for those who don’t have a prior expertise in covering net neutrality. He reiterated that the discussion involves a myriad of complex issues, which can be difficult both for those close to the issues at the FCC and for the journalists tasked with reporting on them. “Add to that the fact that there are so many people out there writing about this, who don’t always write about FCC stuff, who don’t know what an NPRM is versus a Report and Order, and when we start talking about that jargon, you lose them. So when you have difficult issues, plus people who normally don’t deal with them, it’s harder for these folks to really be able to convey the complexity and the subtlety of some of these issues.”
Alvarez also obliquely referenced the consequences of an unclear dialogue in the media. “That’s when we get phone calls [at the FCC] from constituents asking us, why are we breaking the Internet? I don’t know if they’re calling because they think we’re enabling a corporate takeover or a government takeover,” he quipped. “But we all have a lot of work to do to make it easier to relay and talk about.”
An Army of Writers Who Don’t Understand the Issue – Or Perform Elementary Research
Writers have another hurdle to cross before they can begin framing their net neutrality coverage in a way consumers can understand: they must first understand the issue themselves. Several of the panelists noted that they had been covering, analyzing, and studying net neutrality for years, but still had much more to learn.
“There is probably nothing more complicated to cover than a government agency,” said Dalglish. “One thing you have to understand before you cover these issues is what a rulemaking is. You have to understand the terminology. You have to understand the process. It’s really tough. There are people who have done this for years and still don’t understand. So one of the reasons you’re not getting really high quality coverage of this is because nobody understands it.”
An audience member criticized the panelists for framing complex issues from a “this is above you” point of view, asking if it was a way to smokescreen things, or whether the issue was “really that complicated.” The question itself reveals the simplicity with which the net neutrality discussion is often viewed, but Dalglish tackled it, remarking on the dangerous consequences of misunderstood and poorly-researched reporting.
“When I’ve represented journalists who’ve gotten sued for libel, oftentimes it was because they were covering something that was really hard,” she said. She added that layoffs of older reporters led to an influx of younger, inexperienced ones. “And to expect a 23-year-old to go in and do a story like this for my hometown newspaper and explain what this means, it’s hard. I’m not trying to be dismissive to say the public won’t understand it. What I mean is the best reporting on this is done by experienced reporters.”
When asked what young journalists could do to better understand the issue, Dalglish’s answer was simple: “Read a lot about it.” She also cautioned against “reading things from just advocacy groups. Drill down to the actual documents and understand what the FCC does and what the process is. Ask questions. Where do we go from here? What is the FCC allowed to do? What are they expected to do? And when they do take some action, what’s likely to happen?”
Gautham Nagesh, FCC and Technology Reporter for the Wall Street Journal, echoed Dalglish’s sentiments. “It sounds simple, but at least 98 percent of the people who have written a story about net neutrality have never even looked at the NPRM of what the FCC is proposing. Instead, they look at what one side says, they may find someone who thinks the other thing, and then they stick them both in there with sort of a cursory explanation that they got from reading the New York Times story on this issue. And that’s it – bing – a blog post. It seems sort of soulless to me,” he added. “I’ve been a reporter for seven years, so I can do a passable sort of fly-by story [on an issue I’m unfamiliar with]. But net neutrality is not good for that. I don’t think you could write a good story about net neutrality and add something to the debate, from zero, in a short amount of time.”
The Drive for Clicks and Web Traffic Cultivates an Environment of Sensationalism and Buzzwords
The proliferation of the Internet has brought with it an endless source of news, content, and information available immediately to consumers. This new digital ecosystem has changed the way some of ourcommunications protocols exist. When there is breaking news, websites and journalists try to post it as quickly as possible, and with the most eye-catching headlines – because their ad revenue is based on the number of clicks their sites get, and consumers’ attention span is low. This has led to a culture of sensationalistic journalism that has further led to bitter polarization on many issues, and it is very apparent in the net neutrality debate.
According to Dalglish, this sensationalism presents a major problem to the debate by using inaccurate catchphrases and applying them to every varied and nuanced element of net neutrality. “It really bugs me when people indiscriminately throw in the First Amendment on seven different sides of this whole thing,” she said. “It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment, and so when people don’t get that right, and even politicians who I really like and respect say, ‘This is the First Amendment issue of our time….’ Well, it is a huge issue. But it’s not that simple.”
Dalglish also added, “It’s a very difficult thing, particularly for young journalists, to just jump in there. And then they hear something about ‘buzzwords’ – ‘Should everyone have a free and open Internet and be able to get on there?’ – Well, of course they should! Who wouldn’t want that? It’s just very complicated.”
Randolph May, President of the Free State Foundation, commented on the ‘big guy versus little guy’ elements of the debate, which mischaracterize the issue. “Normally, when the journalists refer to Comcast and Verizon, it’s almost always as ‘behemoth’ or ‘giant.’ They are big, so that’s not a falsehood, but Netflix is pretty big itself and so is Google [both disagree with Comcast and Verizon in the net neutrality proceeding], so you could have two giants – giants against giants.”
Turner-Lee offered advice on how journalists can improve the dialogue without resorting to sensationalism. “Journalists can pay more attention to evidence,” she said. “In this debate, there are a lot of ‘what-ifs’ versus the evidence of what actually happens and why we feel that way. Journalists have a responsibility to bring in more evidence, talk to more people. To have a story that breaks down some of the common misperceptions of the public and doesn’t attempt to overlay so many topics into one piece that you just become confused. Debunking that would make the journalism on this topic a little more clear.”
Responsible Reporting Leads to a Better-Informed Society
Wilbur F. Storey once said, “It’s the media’s duty to print the news and raise hell.” While this may be true for investigative journalism, it does not ring true for all. Unfortunately, this mindset appears to be the rule in an age where news is already stale after an hour, and websites jockey for clicks and user visits. Thanks to this new norm, buzzword-laden sensationalism has replaced thoughtful and informative dialogue on complex issues that affect the nation. And this unfortunate phenomenon is not only in the net neutrality debate, but visible in all aspects of the media. While Storey’s words may ring true for some issues, they do not for a vast majority of others.
Armed with the panel’s excellent takeaways (learn the issue, properly translate the issue, and avoid sensationalizing the issue), we can only hope that the conversation surrounding the FCC’s Open Internet proceeding will become less contentious, and that writers will become more conscientious about disseminating accurate information to fulfill their duty of keeping the American public well-informed – rather than writing sensationalist stories to stir the pot for clickbait rewards.
Marcella Gadson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Blog and Director of Communications at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).