Because unbiased reporting no longer exists.
The Era of Fake News?
The term “fake news” was first popularized by President Trump during his 2016 election campaign, and since then it’s been used by both the left and the right to challenge the veracity of stories reported on by the establishment and independent media. In light of this, many journalists have lamented how they now have to battle for legitimacy, and how the once almost sacred institution of journalism no longer holds the same authority over the truth. And although it’s understandable that the public’s distrust of the media must be frustrating for those actually working to deliver important coverage, not only is this new skepticism toward the news media good, but it’s actually vital and long overdue.
While media establishments and journalists may try to convince you of their objectivity, nobody, including those working in the media, is free from personal opinions, experiences, and biases. And while those biases don’t mean reporters can’t be committed to publishing facts, even those that might conflict with their own viewpoints, it would be a mistake to assume that objectivity is inherent in journalism.
In one shocking video released, dozens of news stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the largest owners of local news stations, were revealed to have all been given the exact same script to read on-air about the perils of fake news. Astonishing irony aside, the incident illustrated what many critics of mainstream media news have known for decades - that news outlets, like almost anyone else, have an agenda to push and powerful higher-ups to report to.
News outlets, like almost anyone else, have an agenda to push and powerful higher-ups to report to.
And furthermore, in 2013, just 7% of journalists identified as Republicans, down from 18% in 2002. And in one analysis of 2016 campaign contributions, the Center for Public Integrity showed that 96% of the journalists who disclosed campaign contributions gave money to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It turns out that journalists are just like the rest of us, with their own political affiliations and aspirations for who runs the country. This in no way means that everything the mainstream media says must be biased, but the possibility absolutely does exist that, whether consciously or not, a story could be reported in a way that favors one side over the other.
Specifically, instances like CNN telling its viewers that it’s illegal for them to read Wikileaks themselves (it’s not), or the Boston Globe reporting that Elizabeth Warren is somewhere between 1/32 and 1/512 Native American (the results ran on South American DNA actually showed between 1/64 and 1/1024 heritage) were obviously, at the very least, mistakes. And while, of course, everyone makes mistakes, the partisan nature of these errors combined with the rather quiet nature of the corrections issued by the networks and publishers should make us question the objectivity of major media outlets, as well as individual reporters.
News or Division?
And beyond the partisan divides that separate us, what more people are becoming aware of is the way that sensationalism, drama, and negativity seem to be driving the bottom lines of media outlets. While many media figures (myself included) may like to believe that we deal in hard-hitting stories, the reality is that what keeps publishers going is essentially clicks and views that give advertisers access to audiences. It’s the size of their audience more so than the quality of their journalism that keeps outlets afloat. Of course, it’s possible to conduct hard-hitting, balanced reporting while at the same time drawing people’s interest. But the current focus on trivial stories, while ignoring real issues, in hopes of going viral has unfortunately been detrimental to the public discourse.
Whether it’s the President taking two ice cream scoops instead of one, or the debate over whether Melania Trump’s shoes were appropriate, the chase for clicks has meant that more substantive stories, like those relating to the economy or healthcare, have been forgotten. Additionally, misleading and pessimistic narratives about the state of the country have been popularized, like the constant coverage of crime in a society where crime has been on the decrease for decades, or the disproportionate focus on police force against black people (even though police force against white people is much more common).
People who are happy, getting along, and believe that things are moving in the right direction aren’t necessarily those who have a vested interested in staying politically “informed.” But in contrast, minority groups and communities who have been told that their rights are being taken and that their very lives hang in the balance seem to make very attentive audiences.
But while the media are profiting from the sad truth that division and negativity are more popular than progress and unity, the good news is that people seem to be waking up to how many reporters have gone from reporting on narratives to weaving their own. More than seven in 10 Americans think the media are “dividing Americans” and spread "hate and misunderstanding" according to a new poll. And in another, Zogby Analytics asked 1,024 likely voters "Do you agree or disagree: The mainstream media has played a major role in dividing Americans along racial, gender and political lines. This has led to a spread of hate and misunderstanding among some people.” Some 72% of respondents said they "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree."
How To Stay Informed Responsibly
So with all this talk of “fake news,” what are we, the consumers of media, supposed to do? Despite how tempting it may be to swear off entire news sources or stories to avoid what we believe to be blatant biases, the answer to combating fake news is actually to do the opposite, to consume more media, and of a greater variety. Read a report on Fox News? Then read the same on CNN. Read Washington Post? Then read the Daily Wire. Read Vox? Might as well read Breitbart.
Reading multiple sources, from multiple perspectives and biases, and then deciding for ourselves what’s fact versus opinion is a better alternative than shutting ourselves off in echo chambers of platforms that conform strictly to our own worldviews. Becoming biased to information ourselves is the last things we should want, and in any case, the truth is often somewhere between where each side is claiming it is.
Because as nice as it would be to have only outlets that present us with objective stories, I’m afraid there’s no such thing as perfect and entirely consistent objectivity. Instead, it’s much more likely that the outlets we perceive to be unbiased are merely those that conform with our own viewpoint. And although it may be what’s most comfortable, only reading sources that enforce our preconceived notions leaves us likely to miss out on important stories.
Unfortunately, when it comes to sensationalized news, it’s we, the audience, that has been driving the focus away from more substantive, policy-oriented stories. It’s human nature to focus more on the negative than the positive, so when stories are released that make us worry for our own safety, regardless of how valid their assertions may be, it makes sense that they garner a lot of likes and shares. But if we want news coverage that extends beyond the trending topics on social media, then we need to be proactive and search for that coverage ourselves through the outrage and clickbait articles.
Ultimately, staying informed in an age where fake news, or at the very least misleading news seems so ubiquitous is possible, but it isn’t something that happens passively. We each need to take on the responsibility of informing ourselves.