In the wake of the election, there’s been a lot of talk about the role that “the media”* or “fake news”** may have played in swaying voters. This post is not going to talk about what responsibilities “the media” or individual journalists have, but the equally if not more important obligation that you and I have as consumers of news media: media literacy.
I’m pretty sick of hearing people blame “the media” for mass misinformation, or complain about “the biased media,” because the reality is: everything is ‘biased’! Every news article, every media source, every movie, novel, or piece of art, every social media post you will ever read, has a bias. Much less important than asking “is this media source biased?” is identifying WHAT the bias is in any particular piece you encounter. When you consume news media, no matter the source, you are not merely being fed a string of informative facts but also a chosen frame through which to interpret those facts. It is OUR responsibility to digest that frame as well as the facts; otherwise we are merely swallowing somebody else’s perspective whole.
It’s possible to identify the bias of a single news segment or article, by looking for key word choices that signify an ideological position or adjectives that insert an unnecessary opinion, but a better method is to contrast multiple news outlets’ coverage of the same story. How do the headlines compare? What are the significant differences in word choices? What details do different outlets emphasize? Are there aspects that are included in some stories but omitted in others? How does the inclusion or omission change the tone and perceived importance of the story? Congratulations, You’ve now identified each source’s “bias”, also known as a framing narrative. Sometimes the framing narrative could include not covering a story at all, or covering one story ad infinitum and neglecting others by default. This is another reason why it is our job as readers to vary our news sources–if you only ever read one publication, or watch one channel, how will you know if there are gaps in their coverage?
Besides identifying framing narratives and analyzing the strength or weakness of their alignment with the available factual evidence, it is our responsibility as media consumers to contextualize the content of news media pieces we encounter. Important contextual elements include the author or authors, (have you read pieces by them before? What is their reputation? Do they have a stake in the issue they are reporting on, or relationships with the people they are covering?) the style (is this article labeled as an opinion piece or editorial? Does the information in the text actually match the insinuations of the headline, or is it just clickbait? What are the credentials of guests in this video–is it reasonable to give all their words equal weight just because they are expressing opposing views, or do some have more experience or qualifications to speak on the topic at hand than others?), and the organization that published it (what is their overall reputation for reliability? Who owns or controls them?) .
Of course, though the reputation of individual reporters and news organizations should always be considered, it can never be the deciding factor in determining a media item reliable or rejectable; everyone will be right sometimes, and wrong other times. Remember, for example, when the National Enquirer broke the news of John Edwards’ secret extramarital love-child, months before anyone else took it seriously? That doesn’t mean they should be considered a reliable source in general, but it does illustrate that no publication can ever been summarily dismissed. Each story should be considered on its own merits, with the reporter and publication as factors but also with the evidence and argument presented as a factor, measured against our own independent assessment of that evidence and the framing narrative through which it was presented.
And yes, this is hard work! It takes effort on our part, much more than unquestionably accepting the narrative from the source we prefer, basking in the comfort of an echo-chamber and confirmation bias. We are bombarded daily with more information and misinformation than ever before, but we also have access to more tools than ever before enabling us to do our own fact-checking; don’t just read coverage of political speeches and debates, watch them for yourself. Read the reports, studies, or court rulings referenced in the articles. Good journalists will include a link or at least enough information so you can find the publication they’re referencing yourself; if they don’t, and independent googling doesn’t turn up anything corroborating their claims, then you must entertain either the notion that the article isn’t true, or that there is a giant global conspiracy to suppress it.
One of my personal biases is that I tend to believe objective truth exists, and that massive conspiracy cover-ups are unlikely and improbable. Of course, just like any publication or journalist, I may not always be right in my assessments of the media I consume. But it’s important to be aware of our own mental framing biases; If you’re not convinced that it’s necessary to analyze our own biases to ensure they’re accurate, then at least recognize that failure to be self-aware of your own bias makes you much more susceptible to being manipulated by others’ “fake news”, propaganda, or targeted messaging. Whether motivated by a desire to accumulate clicks for money or to influence political power, multiple entities are already targeting you with media, and if you don’t know your own temptations you’re unlikely to be able to resist.
This feature on Jared Kushner by Forbes shortly after the election mentioned his role in using social media to target campaign messaging on an individual level:
At first Kushner dabbled, engaging in what amounted to a beta test using Trump merchandise. “I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Kushner says. Synched with Trump’s blunt, simple messaging, it worked. The Trump campaign went from selling $8,000 worth of hats and other items a day to $80,000, generating revenue, expanding the number of human billboards–and proving a concept. In another test, Kushner spent $160,000 to promote a series of low-tech policy videos of Trump talking straight into the camera that collectively generated more than 74 million views.
By June the GOP nomination secured, Kushner took over all data-driven efforts. Within three weeks, in a nondescript building outside San Antonio, he had built what would become a 100-person data hub designed to unify fundraising, messaging and targeting. Run by Brad Parscale, who had previously built small websites for the Trump Organization, this secret back office would drive every strategic decision during the final months of the campaign.
Television and online advertising? Small and smaller. Twitter and Facebook would fuel the campaign, as key tools for not only spreading Trump’s message but also targeting potential supporters, scraping massive amounts of constituent data and sensing shifts in sentiment in real time.
Political campaigns aren’t the only ones assessing your personal biases, either–many internet companies track your activity to create a profile of what ads will likely interest you. Here are instructions for how to see what Facebook thinks you like, for example. I know some people react to this type of exposure by saying we shouldn’t use social media, but I think that’s unrealistic. This is the terrain of our world now. Adapting to survive in it means media literacy, being able to navigate both the news and social aspects of the internet, television, and print media without being devoured by the monsters lurking there or swept away by the undertow of misinformation, propaganda, “fake news”, or rigid framing biases.
Assess your own bias. Assess the bias of every piece of media you encounter. Be informed, not manipulated. It’s your responsibility as a media consumer.