Good morning. Here I discuss the impact of fake news, corporate news outlets and the flattening of news consumption in a world with profound access to information.
This idea first came from listening to an NPR Podcast from November 28th. The hosts were discussing how the Trump transition team reported millions of voter fraud in New Hampshire, Virginia and California. When asked for confirmation the transition team pointed to a blog article from 2014 posted to the Washington Post. The source was a blog called “The Monkey Cage” which was spoken of derisively by the hosts. (The source was later debunked.) The point was to discredit the source and the value of the claim. The new concern for consumers of news media lies in the fact that so much of what is taken as truth comes from dubious sources whose claims state that they are not the establishment news which gives them sufficient credibility.
Here are some of the benefits of established news sources. Credibility, if a journalist is employed by a nationally printed newspaper then readers can assume that they have a relevant degree and that their work is subjected to editors, fact checkers and quality control. This credibility also allows the journalist enhanced access to sources, a press badge which allows them to go places and ask questions the general public cannot.
However, citizens should be skeptical. Corporate ownership means “more and more media are now owned by fewer and fewer companies… cutting news staffs; shrinking news holes; declining emphasis on investigative reporting; the “homogenization” of news coverage; demanding ever-higher profits; and emphasizing people/celebrities as newsmakers. One of the effects is a kind of dumbing down of the news” (Anthony Moretti). The dumbing down effect accelerates with the ease of access to news media. Consumers take news in small doses, just enough to fill a cell phone. And yes, there is the belief by many alternative news sources that established news media are pawns of the government which purposely misleads the public to believe things which are not true. If not outrightly false then plenty more will complain about a liberal bias (which pushes liberals to say that those claimants have a problem with the truth).
While the internet should be enhancing how knowledge about the world it has created a balkanized media landscape in which individuals live in personal echo chambers which repeat things they already believe and rarely encounter opposing viewpoints. The algorithms of a social media site like Facebook encourage this. Their algorithms are trained to get more media the user will “like” and if the user only likes points of view they agree with they may never encounter another point of view. This creates the impression that the individual has a monopoly on the truth and the rest of the world lives in ignorance. Over 40% of U.S. adults are accessing their news through Facebook. This means that the perspective of many Americans grows increasingly shuttered to the viewpoints of their fellow citizens.
This balkanization is pushed to more dangerous territory by the rise in fake news stories. Like the yellow journalism at the turn of the 20th century, it sensationalizes and exaggerates stories to sway political perspectives. This time, arising in Macedonia from the minds of small town teenagers, the intent is to profit from the advertising revenues now poured in to news media outlets. They are surprisingly good at what they do. What is to stop an uninformed reader from telling the difference between politico.com and worldpoliticus.com? Then the speed of the internet allows a reader to share an untruth, and readers who are predisposed in one political direction internalize this misinformation and embolden themselves against those mislead by the corporate media.
Quoting Obama in a New Yorker article, David Remnick writes, “The new media ecosystem ‘means everything is true and nothing is true,’… An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody ont he Koch brothers’ payroll. And the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal- that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation.”
Unfortunately, this election demonstrates that adherence to facts grants no benefit. I’m consistently amazed by some of the claims made that “feel” true, which “seem” consistent with a person’s character which is then spun off to be true. And I have to wonder if my usage of this current media is only helping to contribute to the problem. I’m under no illusions that news media is a business like any other. A news organization does not work under a virtuous duty to bring people facts, they are in the business to make money. Therefore they rely on, yes, news, but also sensationalism. It paints a landscape which appears far more dangerous than is really the case. An article showed that when asked if ISIS poses a serious threat to the survival of the US that 77% of respondents agreed. The truth in statistics is far safer. “Even in 2001, the likelihood of an American in the United States being killed in a terrorist attack was less than one in 100,000; in the decade up to 2013 that fell to one in 56m. The chance of being the victim in 2013 of an ordinary homicide in the United States was one in 20,000. Traffic accidents are three times as lethal.” However, terrorist attacks are headlines that play out in politics for days while car crashes and homicides are routine and easy to forget. It skews the impression to think a threat is more pervasive than it is, draws readers and the revenue which follows them.
From sensationalism to outright lies, the information available to us has become another political tool. As a matter of journalistic integrity writers should cite their sources and support their opinions with relevant facts. As a matter of being a responsible consumer readers should look to corroborate the things they read and thoroughly scrutinize their own views as a product of biases. Truth with a capital T is a matter for epistemologists, but we could get at least a little bit closer here in public.
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