One of the things enshrined in our Constitution and interwoven in the success of our democracy in the United States is a free, vibrant, and challenging press.
Reporting on crime and corruption, politics and current events, social trends and silly fads–it’s all part and parcel of what we now call ‘the media’.
Newspapers, magazines, television stations, television networks, cable news networks, and most recently news sites online are all a part of the mix. They investigate, research, prioritize, create, edit, publish, broadcast and opine on the events of our time.
As consumers of news and information, we read, watch, digest, and form our opinions based on what we hear, read, and watch in the media. We can’t be everywhere or know everything, so we rely on media outlets to ‘deliver the news’ to us on a regular basis.
We develop a world view or a political opinion based, to some extent, on what we consume as ‘news’. We also through into the mix our personal experiences in the world, the environment we grew up in, and what we learned in school or through independent reading. We sometimes have conversations with others about politics or social issues. These may shape our perspectives and influence the choices we make when we vote.
So the accuracy and relative objectivity of the information we take in is our ‘diet.’ It’s the data or food we take in to fuel our decision-making process. What it feeds is our ‘body.’ This is our individual body (mind and spirt) and our collective body as a nation.
We take stands on political issues and support candidates based on our perspectives and opinions. These candidates (theoretically) make laws and commit resources based on what we believe to be important…and what we believe to be true.
For instance, most of us believe that North Korea, Russia and China are not our friends on the world stage. Their governments and leaders imprison, torture, and kill people who disagree with their policies. They also kill and imprison journalists who publish unflattering stories about them. They invade peaceful countries and slaughter innocent civilians. Generally, the United States doesn’t condone these things. We as Americans generally aren’t in favor of these things.
So we vote for candidates, commit resources, and create policy that protects us and our allies from the advances of our adversaries who don’t share our values. Why? Because we share a set of facts and a reality that this is what’s good for us overall, and good for the world.
Of course, citizens of North Korea, China, and Russia may feel differently. They’ve been given another set of facts, as it were. They live in another reality perhaps. They get different news. If we were to examine what they believe, we may feel they’ve been ‘brainwashed’. And perhaps they have.
This state of mind often comes from receiving ‘news’ from only one source, with one perspective, and with one agenda. It’s unhealthy but necessary in authoritarian regimes: they need to control what people think and what information they have access to. You can’t ask questions and you can’t disagree. If you do, you risk being ostracized, imprisoned, or executed.
As bad as this is for people living in dictatorships, this same brainwashing is downright lethal to a democracy. This is especially true in the age of social media and corporate media. It is possible for people to feed into ‘news’ that only confirms and hardens their previously held ideas. It makes debate and compromise more difficult and makes conflict more likely.
We’re seeing this in vivid detail today. Conspiracy theories are released on social media as ‘news stories’ and run wild, often fact-free. People believe them, and believe enough of them, and slowly develop a completely unique worldview often not based on facts or evidence. It’s fine if we all have a crazy Uncle Charlie who’s just a little too interested in UFO’s. It’s completely another thing to have about 15% of the country not think that climate change is real or that humans are responsible for it.
We can have differences about policy. We can’t have differences about reality. Not for long, anyway.
In order to make sure we aren’t victims of brainwashing, propaganda, or simply just not being as well-informed as we should be, I’m going to offer up some suggestions. I’m also going to ask some questions. Here we go.
First, read more news and watch less news. What you read in a newspaper is more likely to be facts and information. What you watch on television is more likely to be opinion, framed as news.
Second, develop a constellation of news sources. I’m going to suggest The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Times of London as print sources. For broadcast news, tune into the PBS Newshour and France 24 (they have English language live streaming on YouTube and I think they still air on PBS in the states.)
Third, drop the ‘liberal media’ argument. Personally, I’m tired of hearing it. It’s lazy, inaccurate, and a tool of tyrants who want to disavow any facts that contradict their narrative. Most of the news Americans consume comes from entities owned by corporations. They are in business to make money, and if delivering the news happens to do that, fine. But they’re primarily interested in profits. (Also, it’s worth investigating how ‘liberal’ Sinclair Media and Clear Channel are, and how many radio and televisions stations they own.)
Fourth, social media is not a news source.
Fifth, your news sources should present the same news to everyone. You shouldn’t get a different ‘feed’ because you’re a Republican living in Dallas and not a Democrat living in Detroit. You shouldn’t be ‘steered’ toward other news stories because you read one news story.
Sixth, know the difference between entertainers and journalists. Entertainers often host your favorite ‘news’ program. But they aren’t journalists. Entertainers rely on the ratings of their show to stay on the air. If they’re ratings go down, they’re out of a job. So they have to entertain you. To get you to tune in every night or every week. A journalist writes a story. They don’t need ratings. That’s the difference, oftentimes, in watching the news and reading the news. Go with journalists. Trust journalists.
So take a step back and consider your news in context. Look at it from different angles. Don’t believe everything you read. Find the common set of facts that established, reputable news organizations present and let that be a baseline for you.
Now, let’s ask ourselves some questions.
How do you feel after watching the news? Angry or more informed? That should tell you something.
Has your news source ever referred to the COVID-19 virus as a hoax?
Ask yourself, “Why am I seeing this news story?” When movie stars have a film coming out, they get interviewed. That’s an obvious example, but watch for more subtle motives behind why stories appear on the front page.
Ask yourself, “Who owns this news source?” You may find that a single corporation owns all of your news sources. That’s not good.
The reason our society isn’t working well right now is because the way we aren’t managing our media well right now. We aren’t being as discerning. We aren’t as informed. We are misinformed. We are too certain in what we think we know.
It’s time to take a step back. Things aren’t always cut and dry, black and white. That life, government, and society has always been convoluted, complicated, and contradictory. People we disagree with are not our enemies. People who want to destroy our institutions or bend laws to suit themselves are not our friends.
In a coming post, I’m going to address how we interact with people we disagree with.
But for now, give it some thought…and then give it some more thought when you’re deciding where to get your news.
17 thoughts on “How To Manage The Media”
Early in Barak Obama’s presidency a guest on Fox News said “the Affordable Care Act is going to destroy America” and the network’s ratings immediately spiked (Fox News monitors their ratings every fifteen minutes). Rupert Murdoch, the owner, sent word to the people who appear on camera to use the phrase “the Affordable Care act is going to destroy America” on air at least once an hour, which they did, 24 hours a day, for years. Not coincidentally, Fox News became the highest rated cable news network in America and stayed there for years. (It only recently slipped out of first place, and not by much.)
Everyone I knew back then who watched Fox News was absolutely convinced that the Affordable Care Act was going to destroy America although none of them had any idea why. When I mentioned Rupert Murdoch’s instructions to some of the people I know who watch Fox News and who believed the ACA would destroy America, their response was always the same: Who’s Rupert Murdoch?
It is refreshing every time I receive an email that you’ve updated the blog. I read faithfully though I haven’t taken the time to form well thought responses recently.
In the last two years I have grown more and more appalled at the information my peers regurgitate in my presence. Even insignificant inaccuracies such as believing a pier on our coastline had been decimated by a hurricane; the hurricane swept through and caused much damage, but the pier was fine.
I subscribe to our local news paper, to The Economist, and I listen regularly to the BBC Global News podcast. I should probably diversify my sources a bit more. I watch television rarely, and then only as a form of entertainment.
I do not absorb any of my news information through social settings. The number of times a friend has given me a shocking tale only for me to dismiss it after a very simple fact check in the last year is somewhere in the teens.
There is some thought that more intelligent and/or well-educated people have a greater likelihood of falling into the trap of confirmation bias. The advantage they might have they waste by seeking out information that suits them. It would benefit us to ask ourselves, “What evidence is there that might contradict what I believe to be true in this situation?”
Thank you for the questions you’ve given us to ponder. I shall come up with some answers for myself, but also keep these thoughts in mind going forward.
You are what you listen to.
You are what you read.
Generally speaking, I would agree. People must abandon shock jocks and engineer a new consensus. That much is certain. That said, I’m not sure that media lack liberal bias. I said before that I was among the only politically-neutral journalists I knew. That’s because most of the rest were extremely liberal. In J school, I was repeatedly told that conservative and even centrist views weren’t intellectual enough to take seriously. This was a long time before Q Anon. In fact, this attitude in the newsroom was the reason for the current conspiracy orientation of many conservatives. They feel they are victims of gaslighting, and that, to add insult to injury, they are shamed for speaking out about it. Naturally, they give people exactly what they want. Finally, the business orientation of news does nothing to its political slant. The reigning orthodoxy of elites may be fiscally conservative (both for Democrats and Republicans), but it is also socially liberal, and going further leftward with time.
France 24 gives some excellent reporting on Africa. Before I cut the cord I tried to work with the cable company for a package that didn’t contain the so-called news channels. To go down to basic cable would my raise my overall bill, I wouldn’t get the “discounts”. Now I just use internet. The news channel are just long form cable programming. I replaced cable TV with an apple TV. Besides France 24 we also like Aljazeera English. Another interesting point is that all of the regular antenna networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), have streaming news services without the melodramatics of the actors on CNN, FOX ….
I still receive the print edition of the New York times, since it’s just plain fun to spread it out on the table and read all of the sections.
Yes, I listen to BBC news rather than anything here in the U.S. They do report on major U.S. news stories, but without an agenda, and it is a more broad overview. Also, it is good to hear news from here as only PART of the larger picture of what is going on in the world. I prefer this perspective.
Although the online world of media has so many downsides, I do appreciate that there is a way to read opinions and viewpoints of regular people about political and social issues.
Bravo. Well written. As a member of the Fourth Estate, I applaud your blog.
All good points, Byron!
Here’s another idea: go to the original data data to get the facts.
Often, the numbers tell the story. The press is good at taking numbers and turning them into words.
The majority of Americans – especially non college graduates – are not good with math and statistics. People have a hard time making sense of the huge numbers in the US national budget. They have a hard time with Covid statistics etc. To understand our world requires increasing levels of mathematical literacy which is sadly lacking. I personally know a highly successful retired attorney who is going back community college to take a class in algebra.
Sometimes for fun, I like to go to original sources of data, load the data into Excel and identify trends and conclusions that have not yet been reported in press.
Interesting, thoughtful, and timely post! Two related thoughts occur to me re: conspiracy theories and the like: 1) There’s a sucker born every minute. 2) Garbage in, garbage out. t is certainly an argument for the teaching of so called ‘Critical (Deeper) Thinking’ and media literacy at all levels of the education system.
The Foundation for Critical Thinking might be of interest to other visitors here. It’s approach is one of the things that has informed and reinvigorated my approach to teaching undergrads for the last several years: https://www.criticalthinking.org/
I want to pass along a homegrown tip with large numbers, especially with dollars. I try to turn the number into a ratio. For example, I cannot wrap my head around a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan unless I divide $1.9 trillion by the US population of 330 million. That comes to about $5700 per person.
I of course cannot do the above calculation all that often. Usually I estimate but do worry about making a mistake with all of the zero digits in a trillion.
I wish the media could do math like this to put the numbers in context.
@DabielRube – love this
Couldn’t agree more on PBS newshour for fair balanced reporting.
This is a terrific piece Byron. Social media is not news. People need to read more news and watch less “news”. Cult-like behavior is propagated through these outlets and it might destroy democracy as we know it if it continues.
I’ve started to catch up on my reading and by far your submission are what I look forward to the most. Your no nonsense narratives and meaningful topics are such a breath of fresh air compared to the masses.
Thanks, K Lee. Hope everyone is well and safe. – BGT
Started coming to this website occasionally after reading one of your books, first time commenting.
You forgot to include the WSJ in your source list.
Capitalism > Corporatism
And have you, or your readers, read this article:
Thank you, LL, and welcome. Excellent suggestion with the link. – BGT