11: Truth, Lies, and Media

It seems like every month or so I have an article come across my newsreader that goes something like this: "I'm a [liberal/progressive/democrat/etc.]. I spent [insert amount of time] reading conservative media, and it was crazy!" The latest of these was this article from The Daily Beast1. While I have no problems with the fact that these articles exist, I take issue with the conclusions pretty much every time.

Just to give you a sense of what I mean, here is one of this author's concluding points from near the end:

there is a big difference between comparing bias to bias when the right relies on baseless assertions and outright lies to deliver their political viewpoint. This isn’t really a battle between biases; it’s one of truth versus lies.

This is where these authors lose me. The people who write these articles always come to the same conclusion: that the difference between right-leaning and left-leaning media is actually a difference between reality and lies.

They go on to conclude that the people who watch right-leaning media are living isolated from reality. Somehow they miss the fact that this is kinda true no matter which "side" of the media echo chamber you inhabit.

There's a lot of bad thinking that goes on here, but the number one issue for me is this: whether you stay in the left-leaning media bubble or the right-leaning media bubble, you are every bit as misled.

And that's what really bothers me. All media has perspective. All media has stance. And yes, all of that means that nobody is representing events accurately. And you're entirely ignorant if you think otherwise. There, I said it. Rhetorical politeness be damned.

But lest this become just another polemic on the internet, let's talk about some reasons why we should doubt all claims about "objective" reporting when it comes to any media outlet.

Number one: audience. Every media outlet has an audience that they write to. They have a core group or demographic that they reach, and that will set the expectations for what they write. The typical Fox News reader will have an expectation of a republican-favoring media outlet. The typical Huffington Post reader will have an expectation for complaints about Trump. The only thing that happens if these expectations are not met is that the media outlet loses readers. The audience expectations themselves are going to skew the reporting because these places are writing to a core group or an in-group.

The point is actually not to challenge your regular readership and make them think. If you do, you run the risk of alienating them and losing that audience to a media outlet that panders to them. I'm not saying that's a good thing, but that's kind of how things go.

Number two: seeing and speaking. We sometimes think the transmission of information goes in a straight line like this:

[event]--->[reporter]--->[audience]

If that were true, perfect objectivity would happen all the time. The reporter would see the event and be able to perfectly report all the facts2. Of course, even every day experience will tell you that's not how it works.

Transmitting information actually looks a lot more like this:

[event]-->[what the reporter notices]-->[what the reporter remembers]-->[what the reporter chooses to emphasize]-->[the linguistic system in the reporter's head that they use to store information]-->[the language produced to transfer that information]-->[what the audience notices in the transmission]-->[the linguistic system in the audience's head for receiving information]

Notice something in here: it's already this complicated, and we haven't even mentioned the myriad ways that worldviews can influence all of this stuff. In simpler terms, our very nature prevents complete objectivity in reporting no matter the topic and no matter the source3.

Number three: money. Let's just be honest about this one. Media outlets are advertising platforms that do news as a hobby. Again, that's not a right/left media thing, that's true of all of them. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it absolutely influences what gets reported on, how it's reported, and the writing itself. Blood sold back when they were actually selling papers. These days we would say that blood generates traffic and ad revenue

Number four: partisanship. Not much to say on this one. Owners of media companies have political opinions too. We're fooling ourselves if we think that doesn't matter.

If you really want perspective on just how much of an impact this can have, here's an interesting experiment: choose any given topic that has been important enough to generate news articles4. Then choose two sources on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. Let's just say Fox News and The Huffington Post, since I mentioned those two in an earlier example5. So take those two sources and pay close attention to the writing and even closer attention to the differences between them.

Ostensibly, your two sources are writing about the same thing. I guarantee you they are not writing from the same perspective, and it has a massive impact on how the information is presented. If you just read one article from one source, you could very well come away with very different impressions of an event than someone who read about the same topic from a different source.

And what's truly hilarious is that both writers will claim they were just reporting the facts.

So there are a number of issues with the expectation of objectivity in media, but I think there's a more compelling issue here. We shouldn't be looking to the media for the truth in the first place. And that's true if you talk about media on the right or the left.

Basically, if you live in the conservative media bubble or the liberal media bubble, you are being misled. There is an antidote though. It's this fun thing we call peer reviewed research (and, you know, reading good books). If good, hard, objective looks at reality is really what you're after, then don't waste your time on the news. Read research articles and academic books instead. You just won't find objectivity in the media6.

Oh but that reminds me. The point of these articles isn't to be objective either. The point is to pat yourself on the back and say, "well, I'm sure glad I'm not one of THOSE guys!" Please. The pot calls the kettle black.

Notes:
1A group I actually liked quite a lot at one point, but their editorial standards just tanked after 2016 or so. Just my opinion, of course, but it seemed like they quickly went from writing thoughtful and compelling commentary to just another mindless click generator on the internet. I'm not really sure why.

2And just the facts.

3Of course, there's always a follow-up question. Is it possible to objective? Absolutely! It just takes more care for nuance than you will ever get in journalism. If you want to read further, I would highly suggest Newman and Genevieve Birk's essay "Selection, Slanting, and Charged Language" from their book Understanding and Using Language

4You probably can't do this with covid-19 right now. It's big news, but the topic is too broad to really see the differences. You'd probably have to narrow down.

5There's not really even a need to go extreme here. You don't have to compare things as far apart as Breitbart and Buzzfeed to see how this works.

6No matter which "side" that media is on.


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