One of the problems with Freedom of the Press in the U.S. is that, famously, it belongs only to those who own a press. Even in the age of the Internet, Youtube, twitter, and blogging, it’s far easier to put up a chatty site full of opinion, innuendo, ideology, and psuedo-facts than it is to send investigative reporters to find out what newsmakers don’t want you to know, to verify facts, and to write clear and cogent explanations of important situations that work to keep readers informed.
This is the nature of news reporting in a capitalist culture where every organization has to earn its own living, or weaken and ultimately die.
For this reason and others, many have suggested that newspapers and other news gathering organizations should not be part of the capitalist structure at all. Instead, they should be supported by endowments that allow them to spend money without regard to whether or not they generate enough income to pay all their expenses.
But this change alone, while it might free newsgathering organizations from the need to attract mass audiences in order to pay their bills, would not ensure that they focus their energies on reporting what’s really important, or that they report on major stories in a factual, sober, and sensible manner.
What’s also needed, aside from some kind of endowment or stipend system that provides a steady stream of money to meet the admittedly heavy expenses of in-depth reporting, is a system that incentivizes and rewards newsgathering organizations for reporting on the stories that are important for citizens of a democracy to understand and follow.
That function could possibly be performed by a separate Board of Reporting Quality. The BRQ would meet at regular intervals, perhaps monthly or quarterly, and evaluate a newsgathering organization’s work. Is it focusing on the important stories? Is it unearthing the bedrock truth and detailed machinations contained in each of those stories? Is it reporting those stories clearly, concisely, accurately, and understandably? Is it following and reporting on each story not only through its most titillating moments but from its earliest beginnings to its final conclusions and implications?
The BRQ could then use these evaluations to recommend funding levels to the separate Board that controls the newsgathering organization’s funding. The better job it does of reporting, the more money it gets to spend. When the quality of reporting goes down, so does the extra money that pays for perks, extras, frills, and bonuses.
Under a system like this, properly run, salaries for investigative reporting could float to their fair-market level, high enough to attract more of the best and brightest, including some who are presently enticed to enter other professions because the money there is so much better.
The net result, in an ideal world, would be that newsgathering organizations would be funded well enough to cover the really important stories of the day and bring them to the attention of interested citizens. The pressure news publishers now feel to tease, titillate, and go tawdry would be eliminated, or at least offset by incentives aimed more responsibly.
With such institutions in place, interested citizens could feel more assured that we’re being told about issues, problems, and opportunities that are really important to our daily lives and to our future.