A Junk News Diet

News consumers are foregoing the important information that makes democracy work.

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Conventional wisdom has it that this news gap might have existed for a long time. It was perhaps sustainable when these media had a strong market position that allowed them to fulfill a public service mission while advertisers had no choice but to come to them to reach large segments of the public.

However, in the current media environment marked by increased market competition, rising challenges to traditional journalistic roles, splintered niche outlets and a greater ability of consumers to avoid the news they aren't interested in, the gap is critical. It threatens the viability of the public service mission that was the hallmark of high-quality journalism in the 20th century.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

So what can we expect in the 21st century? Genuine concerns arise over the outcomes from this news gap trend and how content may drift away from the gravitas of necessary news in a democracy to the lighter side of daily world events in order to please consumers.

The alarming disconnect between news producers and consumers endangers three fundamental roles of news media in democratic societies: suppliers of public-affairs information, watchdogs of public officials and other powerful actors and providers of spaces for civic deliberation.

In years past, the gap signified the power of the leading media to fulfill their role and set a widespread agenda for social participation, oftentimes despite and against the public's interests. Today, the gap signifies the growing weakness of these media to set such an agenda and the potential alienation of the public from matters of political concern.

The public's curiosity may be satiated by stories about shipwrecks and soccer. But the contributions of these symbolic nutrients are not enough for the healthy functioning of the body politic. Just as we are, partly, what we eat, we also are the news that we consume. And when the supply and demand of online news diverge, it is not just media organizations that might lose, but also our shared democratic life.

Pablo J. Boczkowski is Professor and Director of the Program in Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University and the author of "Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers," and News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance."

Eugenia Mitchelstein is a PhD candidate in the Program in Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University. Their new book, "The News Gap: When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge," will be released November 8.

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