A democracy, by definition, is a government for the people and by the people. People are responsible for making decisions about how they want the government and their country to act and look like and what laws are needed to further the common good. In the American iteration of a democracy, the electorate is also responsible for choosing which officials will speak, vote and enact laws that serve their constituents’ best interests.
In electing these officials, however, constituents are bombarded with a barrage of news on any and all media platforms, including both traditional news sites and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. This news, in many of its forms, is in finite supply unless consumers are subscribers and pay monthly fees to the media organization of their choosing.
Taken together, charging consumers to read more than the standard 10 free articles per month while simultaneously haranguing the public to be as informed as possible come November is a confusing conflict. This creates both an intimidating environment for news consumers as they sift through the vast array of stories but also an environment in which certain more economically privileged individuals enjoy easier access to news than others.
The New York Times, when not running a subscription sale, charges $15 a month for an online subscription and $20 a month if you opt for a hard copy paper delivered to your doorstep every Sunday. The Washington Post charges $10 a month for their online subscription or $15 for their premium online subscription.
When not running promotions, a Bloomberg subscription is $35 a month. A year’s subscription of online access to the New Yorker is $90, while adding a weekly delivery of a hard copy of the magazine ups the price to $150 a year.
Taken at face value, $10 or $15 a month doesn’t sound that bad. But you have to consider that to be a well-informed citizen, it is suggested that you have a diverse set of sources from which you’re getting news. So, let’s say you subscribe to two different news sources. This puts your monthly bill at around $25 a month.
Again, $25 a month doesn’t sound that bad at face value. But when considering that the national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, paying for news each month is worth almost four hours of work.
For individuals earning minimum wage — making an annual amount of $15,080 if working full-time — items such as rent, food, gas or transportation, and other basic necessities will obviously outrank a New York Times subscription when budgeting. Setting aside the issue of a necessary and long overdue increase of the minimum wage, it is unreasonable to expect individuals with tighter financial restrictions to spend their money on access to online news media.
But if you don’t pay for a subscription, then you only get the set amount of free articles, which means consuming the barrage of news released each day becomes a lot more difficult. Not only does it become more difficult to access the news, but it becomes more difficult to contextualize more complex news, such as the Mueller Report or the ongoing calls for Trump’s impeachment.
The financial barriers to accessing media lead to certain sectors of the population that are inherently more capable of affording and consuming the media because of their socioeconomic status, leaving others with their 10 free articles a month and news found on other platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.
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The news found on Facebook and Twitter, however, is oftentimes unreliable. According to a study done by professors at Dartmouth and Princeton universities, an estimated one in four Americans visited a fake news website in the two months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. And 22% of these website visits stemmed from Facebook, which did not have a coherent policy restricting the dissemination of fake news on its platform at this time.
If individuals cannot access legitimate news sources due to financial constraints, and are therefore left to rely on the news they see while scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, they are much more likely to encounter false and intentionally misleading or partisan stories. This leads to a stratification of who is getting what information from which sources, with individuals who subscribe to reputable sources getting consistently higher quality, more reputable news than individuals who cannot afford to do so.
It is important for voters to be educated. It is important for news organizations to remain financially stable, which is done largely through the revenue generated by selling subscriptions. But it is also important to acknowledge that for many people, the cost of subscribing is out of reach, and it’s crucial to understand the implications that has for their ability to access the information necessary to be an informed voter.
Aly Niehans ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science.