It’s been almost a month since candidate Donald Trump became President-Elect Donald Trump, and among the many other things his win has exposed, it has revealed how easy it is to exploit our balkanized news media to selfish ends. In principle, journalism is about enlightening the public with “information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” but, many news articles today amount to extended Facebook posts or Tweets–heavy on opinion and personality, with less concern for fact.
Opinion columns (by unpaid contributors) are arguably integral to the business model of news outlets like The Huffington Post, and opinion sections take up more and more real estate on sites like TheGuardian.com. Cable news shows are populated by hosts and pundits unabashedly affiliated with right- or left-wing agendas, and cable news stations are either run by outspoken supporters of the right or left, or billing themselves as stations that will deliver news stories in a way that appeals to supporters of the right or left.
Then there’s Facebook and Twitter. With most Americans consuming or learning of breaking news via social media, and these outlets serving up only the content their mysterious and ever changing algorithms believe we want to see based on who and what we most interact with, engaging with the news has become a masturbatory exercise.
We are only exposed to the ideas and stories we either already agree with or want other people to know about. But if we are reading or watching only the outlets that reflect our persuasion or only following people we agree with online, we block the opportunity to broaden and inform our perspectives with legitimate points of opposition, and we lose basic human empathy for one another.
People who don’t agree with us are dismissed as “liberal elites” or “wing nuts”–us vs. them. We calcify in our respective corners, not speaking to or hearing each other, which makes us easy pawns for interests and individuals that don’t care about us or them. The truth becomes less important than “message,” and whosever message is most seductive wins.
Watching many of the political analysts on both Fox and CNN at points during the campaign cycle, it seemed clear their sole concern was delivering their candidate’s message. Period. Message for the sake of message, even when their message was inconsistent.
For example, in one breath, a Trump supporter would leverage a scathing critique of Bill Clinton’s treatment of women, championing their candidate’s trotting out of Clinton’s female accusers–then, in the next breath, dismiss Donald Trump’s bevy of accusers as pawns of the liberal media. Likewise, a Hillary Clinton supporter would rail about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, but ardently defend her refusal to release transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street firms or her infamous deletion of multiple emails. Ironically, far right outlets seemed to express little alarm at the fact that the Russian government was alleged to be behind the leaks of DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign emails–but cited her handling of classified emails and their potential exposure as criminal.
This faction impulse is understandable. As Ann Friedman wrote in a pre-election post for New York Magazine entitled “Supporting Hillary While Reckoning With Bill’s Sexual Past”:
With an openly racist accused rapist running as the other party’s nominee, it doesn’t seem like the right time to voice any of my concerns with Hillary as a candidate. Certainly not now, in the final weeks of a campaign that offers no room for nuance. And certainly not when it’s apparent that most of Trump’s defenders care more about defeating Hillary than about ensuring survivors’ voices are heard.
But faction mentality is easily duped by exaggeration and outright fiction.
This summer, Buzzfeed posted an interview with a teenage creator of three fake news sites who admitted that many of the stories he creates mislead and incite fear, and influence political perception, but says he actually has no political affiliation. “It’s really just the money,” he admits, that motivates him.
We need Google to adjust their algorithm to clearly identify fake news sites. We need our news sources, including Facebook and Twitter, to segregate actual news from fake news and opinion/editorial pages, as they (still try to) do with news and advertising/sponsored posts.
If there aren’t already, we need laws in place to ensure that unbought, unaffiliated journalists are delivering the news, not people with financial or career interests tied to specific individuals or corporations. We need our newsrooms to keep pushing to reflect diversity of backgrounds and perspectives so the news is balanced and corrected for implicit biases.
Additionally, we need to talk about money.
The internet has created a bottomless desire for content, but since there is no bottomless source of money, online news outlets are paying far less than they pay print journalists, and, as a result, less experienced, sometimes untrained writers are taking more of these jobs. Additionally, since internet journalism is even more dependent on nabbing a scoop before a competitor to increase their Google search rank and, ultimately, the amount of revenue they can charge advertisers, fact checking is de-prioritized, added to the writer’s plate rather than a professional’s, or non-existent.
We need publications with healthy fact-checking teams to ensure the news we get is accurate. We need some sort of protective provision for news gathering publications so they don’t have to be profitable or account to shareholders, and, thus, be beholden to clicks and shares in the same way as a blog or retail site.
If we believe our news media is rigged or biased, we need to hold them accountable. We need to burst our own bubbles.