Lara Setrakian: 3 Ways to Fix a Broken News Industry
Something is very wrong with the news industry. Trust in the media has hit an all-time low; we’re inundated with sensationalist stories, and consistent, high-quality reporting is scarce, says journalist Lara Setrakian. She shares three ways we can fix the news to better inform all of us about the complex issues of our time.
Five years ago, I had my dream job. I was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East reporting for ABC News. But there was a crack in the wall, a problem with our industry, that I felt we needed to fix. You see, I got to the Middle East right around the end of 2007, which was just around the midpoint of the Iraq War. But by the time I got there, it was already nearly impossible to find stories about Iraq on air. Coverage had dropped across the board, across networks. And of the stories that did make it, more than 80 percent of them were about us. We were missing the stories about Iraq, the people who live there, and what was happening to them under the weight of the war.
Afghanistan had already fallen off the agenda. There were less than one percent of all news stories in 2008 that went to the war in Afghanistan. It was the longest war in US history, but information was so scarce that schoolteachers we spoke to told us they had trouble explaining to their students what we were doing there, when those students had parents who were fighting and sometimes dying overseas.
We had drawn a blank, and it wasn’t just Iraq and Afghanistan. From conflict zones to climate change to all sorts of issues around crises in public health, we were missing what I call the species-level issues, because as a species, they could actually sink us. And by failing to understand the complex issues of our time, we were facing certain practical implications. How were we going to solve problems that we didn’t fundamentally understand, that we couldn’t track in real time, and where the people working on the issues were invisible to us and sometimes invisible to each other?
When you look back on Iraq, those years when we were missing the story, were the years when the society was falling apart, when we were setting the conditions for what would become the rise of ISIS, the ISIS takeover of Mosul and terrorist violence that would spread beyond Iraq’s borders to the rest of the world.
Just around that time where I was making that observation, I looked across the border of Iraq and noticed there was another story we were missing: the war in Syria. If you were a Middle-East specialist, you knew that Syria was that important from the start. But it ended up being, really, one of the forgotten stories of the Arab Spring. I saw the implications up front. Syria is intimately tied to regional security, to global stability. I felt like we couldn’t let that become another one of the stories we left behind.
So I left my big TV job to start a website, called “Syria Deeply.” It was designed to be a news and information source that made it easier to understand a complex issue, and for the past four years, it’s been a resource for policymakers and professionals working on the conflict in Syria. We built a business model based on consistent, high-quality information, and convening the top minds on the issue. And we found it was a model that scaled. We got passionate requests to do other things “Deeply.” So we started to work our way down the list.