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.