What would the world look like if the police were paid per arrest they made? In other words, if they weren’t paid to keep the peace but paid to make arrests.
This practice of “paying per arrest” is rare in history, but its closest cousin called “arrest quotas” (where the police are given quotas on arrests to meet each month and is equally universally criticized) does sadly happen. NYC precincts as recent as 2010 and Chicago precincts as recent as 2014 surfaced as examples where quotas were in place, resulting in demotion and backlash to officers when they did not meet their quotas. As these internal quotas in each precinct became public, they were abolished nearly as quickly as they became public.
However, there are not many public cases where police are actually paid per arrest. The same logical criticism extends from “arrest quotas” — where the natural issue is that the police will look to make arrests versus aim to keep the peace. But it only takes a few seconds to imagine how it would get far worse if officers were waking up each day trying to arrest as many people as possible, without accountability, to increase their personal compensation.
In a sector known for its abuse of a near-monopoly on power, this is a bridge too far for them to travel.
That’s saying something.
However, quotas are often used for journalists in today’s modern media landscape. Different labor unions within media organizations, from Sports Illustrated to Time Magazine to BuzzFeed News have tried to enact contracts with their employers to forbid such practices. But even when they’re not fully explicit with quotas, outlets still explicitly state that they use metrics to assess journalists.
“We don’t have quotas,” said Business Insider’s president Julie Hansen in 2013 when asked about quotas in managing writers as an organization. But she also added that “We do pay attention to whether writers attract an audience. We measure results.” In an industry that pushes news and insights in order to get paid for visitors to their advertisers or by subscribers, this by-product makes sense. These organizations want to make sure their staff are contributing to their business objectives. As the adage goes, “you make what you measure.”
The examples of explicit quotas are a simple enough comparison, but in the case of implicitly pushing journalists to drive views instead of explicitly, it would be the police policy equivalent of the head of a precinct saying “We don’t give a number, but the police who arrest the most get the biggest paychecks.”
This is in stark contrast to measurements around the elimination of crime in an area.
This latter metric is directly tied to how the police forces began around the country and around the wider world; as peace-keepers.
How did journalism begin? To inform the uninformed? That has been an immensely powerful by-product, but journalism in the United States specifically began with pro-revolution publications, many of which were in the right, and many of which were unilaterally censored by authorities.
The first American newspaper, “Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick,” was shut down after just one issue because it faced such harsh disapproval from colonial authorities — The newspaper was published in Boston in 1690 by Benjamin Harris. However, it did not have official approval from the British colonial government, and its content was deemed “objectionable.”
The newspaper’s first and only issue, published on September 25, 1690, contained articles critical of the British government and its policies, particularly in relation to the Native American population — The authorities considered the content to be offensive and potentially seditious, as it was seen as challenging their control and stirring public unrest, justified by its clear moral accuracy according to Harris and many others.
Municipal police forces may have begun with the goal of preserving peace.
But governments did not.
Their goal is to preserve (and often increase) power — Benjamin Harris faced legal action and was prevented from publishing any further issues in this battle of two opposing forces.
Due to its brief existence and censorship by colonial authorities, “Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick” still holds a significant place in American journalism history as the first attempt at publishing a newspaper in the colonies. Despite its suppression, it paved the way for the subsequent growth of the press in the United States, leading to the establishment of other newspapers that eventually embraced the principle of a free press.
Benjamin Franklin’s “Pennsylvania Gazette” emerged as one of the most influential colonial newspapers, promoting enlightenment ideals, freedom of the press, and becoming what many see as the most influential medium stoking and igniting the revolutionary embers throughout the colonies leading up to the War For Independence here in the States. A monopoly of power met its match in the prowess of printed ink.
This dance between the two forces has led to a counter-balance to corrupt government, a counter-balance that the world has never seen.
A free and active press is the left foot to the right foot of progress through collective power. And journalistic outlets flourished in the newly created United States of America, one of the few governments with an open embrace of a free press.
And for generations, it has operated as a priestly class, the fourth estate, under a mantle of informing the uninformed. A noble and massively significant mission.
And yet, there’s always been two threads of journalism; two bottles marked as “medicine” sitting side by side for the patient to pull from; one as prescription and the other as poison.
This can happen in the same newspaper (Franklin famously and ideologically wrote under fake names with propagandistic beliefs he did not want to attach to his own identity). Or it can happen in competing outlets at the same eye-level on the stand. Next to the outlet selling the story of Watergate is the outlet selling published gossip in The Sun (sidenote: The Sun actually began as a serious and widely respected newspaper before transitioning into a more openly sensational tabloid format in the 1960s).
Maybe it is because the consequences don’t feel as dire, or maybe it’s because most people don’t feel like they are a potential target… Or maybe it’s because they have their own narrative in print elsewhere… But we’ve more or less ignored the inaccuracies, the sensationalism, the business model oriented around creating as much eyebrow-raising or informational chaos as possible when it comes to journalism, driven by the commercial motive that it improves the bottom line (for example, let’s just say the transition of “The Sun” was not for charity).
And this is in contrast to the uproar around any scent of a police force incentivized to come up with crimes and juice arrest numbers.
Don’t get me wrong, it had consequences. The business-model pressure around the newspapers you read today selling advertising or subscriptions (falsely positioned to you and me as “selling the truth”), the intentional or unintentional inaccuracies, the chaos-seeking, the embellishments, either overt or hiding behind the sadistic camouflage of clever wording, truth by technicality and lies by omission, and the recent incentives around reductionist page-views (which wasn’t possible in the pre-internet era) has had consequences.
Trust in the media is depressingly low. With the majority of people in 2023 believing that news organizations —the once priestly class of journalists— as organizations that deliberately mislead the public. Take a second to read that again.
The majority of people believe that news organizations don’t just “get it wrong” sometimes or even often. The majority of people in 2023 believe the industry as a whole deliberately misleads the public. Want a mental visual? Instead of Nixon boarding the helicopter with two peace signs in guilt-drenched obliviousness, 50 years later, it is journalism itself giving the peace signs as they currently board the helicopter to irrelevance.
Said another way, the average person views the journalist’s primary aim in society as misinforming the uninformed. In the US, many journalists view themselves as speaking truth to power, and many, many, many, many do, but as a class, they are now trusted less than all forms of power they are used to balance — government, large organizations, businesses, business leaders, and nearly all other public personas.
In a survey of over 100 journalists by New York Magazine about where the problems within media exist, the top five reasons given by the journalists themselves center around their output either not being accurate or helpful to society at large.
When a police force is incentivized to generate arrests, the acute problem for an individual is not nearly as alarming as the broader implications. With these implications being: this is already bad for the person getting arrested, and it’s only going to get worse for everyone else as well. There is no conceivable end to the negative cycle of such an incentive structure.
With major trends toward catering to sensationalism, schadenfreude (the desire to see someone get tarred and feathered publicly), hit pieces, and fear-mongering, journalism and the corresponding headlines continue to get more and more negative across the globe each year as well.
These negative articles and the subsequent doom spiral of such articles industry-wide aren’t the journalists fault. It’s not essentially the police officer’s fault either. It’s the incentive structures built around a business model in decline, a consumer audience that is in a fear free fall —accelerated by the constant fear reinforcement by both government and media— trying to orient themselves around a foundation of safety and security in the midst of such media noise, like bath water trying to find stability while the vortex of forces pull everyone down the drain.
In the comparison of arrest quotas to press hit quotas, with business models rewarding journalists based on their performance in attracting an audience on an annual basis, and a public that loves its press arrests, it’s sadly worse than arrest quotas, it’s a direct incentive to arrest (a business, a movement, an individual, an official) as much as possible. Arrest quotas like sales quotas have a plateau. Page-view assessments on journalists do not.
It’s a strange world out there, where trust is higher in nearly every other sector than the sector whose supposed purpose is to bring us truth.
But that seems to be what happens when a source of force is overly-incentivized to use it. And for an industry, especially in the United States, where its genesis was as a tool of war for those that sought secession (as just as the war may have been), perhaps it should be no surprise to witness such an obvious and growing dark underbelly when profit structures are involved.
Thankfully, the monopoly turned oligopoly of information dissemination, from government to a free press, is evolving beyond organized journalism. I think we’re in a positive interim trend where the barrier to publish is falling so rapidly that journalists are able to start their own outlets that you and I can subscribe directly to. Where ordinary people themselves actually drop the largest bombshells, becoming more well-known than nearly any journalist overnight (Assange and Snowden being prime, global examples of this).
I say interim, because I think the long-term looks more like the current landscape within podcasts: where it’s multimedia, in-depth, long-form conversations with experts by other experts (an entertainer interviewing another entertainer, a doctor interviewing another medical professional, a neuroscientist interviewing another scientist). You could call this citizen journalism. The other long-term trend will likely be fact-finding and fact-driven artificial intelligence engines that give you the information you are looking for succinctly and without ads (OpenAI’s ChatGPT is importantly not ad-driven, for example). Increasingly competent filters for truth will either push you and be ever-present for pulling in this long-term world; where you can already see incredible progress in just the last five years.
A better name for these trends might be expertise accessibility, over citizen journalism. In the end, we want clear and abundant access to insight. And the printing press (where we get the term “the press”) was just one way of providing access to insight. But in the future, that term will be as unnecessary as that method.
I’d rather listen to an expert interview another expert while I’m driving my car or washing the dishes that I discover via something like Google’s News or YouTube incredibly powerful recommendation engines based on my interests (where I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to sift through a newspaper, a website, with an attention-hoarding activity like reading versus listening while at the gym to two experts converse for 3 hours, and where the questions and ensuing answers are going to be maximally insightful — versus an older model of 1,000 word allowance by an editor akin to a shoe box having to fit through a coffee straw of a medium of the local newspaper with a lens of a non-expert journalist guiding the material, a newspaper or even a current newsletter that I would typically need to already be a subscriber to).
These expert-driven conversations, questions, and dialogue are not going anywhere in a world with artificial intelligence in my view, and in fact, will continue to become fodder for improving artificial intelligence models. Will artificial intelligence become infallible? No. But the technological shift is already underway where they will be less fallible than the most outstanding individual expert in their field over time. In other words, we’re perhaps 3-5 years away from where a conversation with an AI model will easily provide more accurate, more abundant, and more accessible insight to Einstein’s theories and body of wisdom than hours of conversation with the man himself would have. 2027 physics students be like: “AI, explain Einstein’s five most profound contributions to physics to me as if I’m an 18-year-old in any language I choose, for free, both written and voice-over, and on repeat, while asking me questions over the following 30 days to see how well I understand the concepts.”
And that app on the device in your pocket will do this for nearly all languages, for all mental capacities, all hours of the day, and for all fields. Without the incentive to manipulate your attention for advertisers.
Something else magical happens when an expert interviews another expert, in addition to accessibility to them directly that few of us ever had previously — and that is that the conversations are mostly positive.
Instead of a well-meaning individual incentivized to combat and bully (as noted by others, journalists routinely refer to their articles as their subjects, a term borrowed from monarchical rule) — it’s a well-meaning individual incentivized to bring out the best insights in another within their field. I will also add there is something incredible about dialogue and thoughts that come out in conversation that don’t happen in isolation (reduction in bias, increase in distributed cognition, synthesis of views that are not possible alone being examples).
And the incentives are already there to reward these experts for making other experts accessible. The neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman is now a multi-millionaire from starting his own podcast bringing scientific insights to the masses. One of the top earning business newsletters on Substack is Lenny Rachitsky’s, simply called Lenny’s Newsletter, giving insights from his experience as a product manager to other product managers. The incentive to drive views is here as well, but the incentive to stay in good standing among your community of fellow experts along with the day-job that already pays you well in the case of someone like Dr. Huberman, diminishes this incentive greatly. Biases in this direction exist. But I’d take a police officer with a bias and incentive towards keeping the peace amongst all parties versus one with a bias and incentive towards violence, detainment, and exiling people from their communities.
This future viewpoint of unprecedented levels of expert accessibility bears repeating: the impact AI will have to break down complex concepts, often first published or discussed by an expert, for global audiences is laughably efficient and significant. Slightly less difficult than contacting Einstein himself, try to get in touch with the world’s greatest professor on Greek philosophy to learn about Plato. And then try to have them explain something on your time table several ways until you are satisfied and sufficiently informed. Try that today. Or ask ChatGPT to explain Plato’s “top 10 most influential concepts in a way that a teenager can understand them.” Will there be inaccuracies? Sure. The world-renowned Cognitive Scientist (offering free lectures on YouTube), Dr. John Vervaeke, routinely appreciates when commenters point out his inaccuracies. Imagine if you could get his insight, at will, on any of his topics, in your language, for free, and automatically cross-referenced by the most accurate and comprehensive, live-updating, citizen-compiled encyclopedia in Wikipedia before any answer is delivered to your device.
So where do journalists go? Those wired to expound in specific areas become well-paid experts in fields they truly love. Or they leave a business model that they themselves seem to believe does not have the proper incentive structures for their work to thrive in. In a world with edicts about defunding the police, it seems the organizations holding the position of buying ink by the barrel are actually getting defunded.
But thankfully, ink has never been cheaper for that individual brilliant mind that feels the call to journal in public.
The same can be said for the expert that is swimming in dimly lit insight each day, wanting to share it with the wider world. Or for the brave insider that decides to inform the uninformed.
In 2019, an Australian police officer in Queensland, James Treanor, revealed that there was a hidden quota system within his precinct. His revelation created a predictably explosive public backlash that has since led to policy corrections for such an insidious practice.
Treanor is now a practicing lawyer — an expert specializing in criminal law in Queensland. His prior job, his brave act, and his career trajectory might not matter to most. But it matters to his community, immensely.
The thing about communities is that we all belong to one.
We can all contribute, official columns are not needed. Informing the uninformed has never been simpler or more important — And in this next era of its evolution, all of us can become contributors.
1) As mentioned and cited several times above, though they began (and are still used) as tools of war, media outlets have been tools of what many will plainly see as justified war (from the inception of the profession in the United States around colonial rule, to tools leveraged for influencing the abolition of slavery, for women’s suffrage, to broader civil rights, to the continuous uncovering of corruption, and the recent me-too era being major examples of just war on the status quo). These are clear positive examples. Canons, bullets, and bayonets also have positive examples.
2) Interestingly, the American public actually trusts the police —the oft-targeted and oft-deserved punching bag of corruption— more than journalists in 2023.
3) In the worst case scenario, as society collectively shifts towards more accurate forms of insight, we are potentially witnessing the downfall of journalism. But this comes with the rise of expertism, or increased, unprecedented access to experts (and incentives for journalists to become experts). This interim friction has been playing out over the last 10-15 years already, and the pain and disorientation felt by many within the news industry requires empathy. And I think the best form of empathy is in the form of clarity, realism, and accurate insight into how people affected can best navigate such a dynamic shift within an industry. I’ve aimed to write this with these aspects in mind.
4) I often write essays on topics in order to learn about them. So this above is not an example of expert access. It’s just an interested citizen observing the unnerving trend of accelerating and incentivized militaristic, negative journalism. And I welcome all perspectives that can highlight where I’m an idiot, blindly biased, or just flat out missing context on any of these strings of observations. The discussion that can ensue from being wrong is one of the most helpful events to improving the accuracy of a perspective.
So you can tweet me @jamesbeshara and let me have it where I’ve missed anything important. Happy to record it in the article as I make improvements to it with your own contributions. Distributed cognition for the win.