The problem isn’t that we are believing fake news — it’s that we stopped believing in news. Since the middle of the 1900s, trust in the news has been slipping. It opened up a gap that financially-motivated false information generators happily filled.
It always makes me think of the story of chicken little. In that tale, the foolish chick gets bopped on the head by an acorn. He assumes the sky is falling. So, he runs around telling all of the other animals. They also panic.
In the traditional versions, this hysteria leads to their demise — usually a fox eats them all.
Many Americans are having a similar reaction to the state of news. They see a report from a journalist that doesn’t align with their worldview and decide to reject reality altogether. They relish a false factoid in a sourceless meme because they like the political leaning — and reject a thoughtful investigation with evidence.
It’s a disproportionate reaction — a moral panic — for a situation that isn’t that bad.
Even though mainstream news outlets have room for improvement, they have layers of accountability, regulation, and even incentive. Other content creators don’t bear this responsibility because they can disappear at any time. They aren’t accountable to the FCC, their corporate partners, their advertisers, or even you.
Agenda Setting Theory and Media Bias
As I was explaining my local news project to a friend, she asked me how “biased” the posts were. She wanted to know if the outlet leaned “liberal” or “conservative” in their coverage. I explained that wasn’t what I was studying at all. I wanted to look at the newsworthiness and relevance of the stories in their posts because that shines a light on their editorial policy.
Setting up politically divided news outlets is disingenuous.Danielle Verderame, The War of the Words
However, her question revealed a key flaw in how we talk about the news. People focus on the political viewpoint of the outlet or author over all other factors.
…members of the two parties do not see eye-to-eye on this question. Seven-in-ten Republicans say fact-checkers tend to favor one side, compared with roughly three-in-ten Democrats (29%) – a 41 percentage point difference. Conversely, most Democrats (69%) say fact-checkers deal fairly with all sides, a view shared by just 28% of Republicans. Independents are more split, with 47% saying fact-checkers tend to favor one side and 51% saying they deal fairly with all sides – though independents who lean toward the Democratic Party and those who lean toward the Republican Party diverge sharply (65% vs. 37% say fact-checkers deal fairly with all sides, respectively).Pew Research Center
One loud voice on this is Fox News. In the 1990s, when Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch established Fox News, they chose a unique selling point (USP) to fill a niche area of the market — politically conservative news. To separate their stories from the mainstream, they started using two key media theory concepts to their advantage and warped their meaning.
When a reporter (not a commentator) covers a news story, modern journalistic norms require that they seek the truth. This has not always been the case in America, as you can see in my Brief History of Fake News in America. As reporters seek the truth — the facts — they are supposed to deliver that information in context and, as objectively as possible.
However, journalists are people and, of course, have opinions. These are fine as long as they disclose their opinions and affiliations when applicable. The term isn’t meant to just apply to politics. It’s actually much larger.
Types of media bias
- Advertising Bias occurs when stories are picked to please advertisers
- Corporate Bias means that stories are selected based on whether they will please the media outlet’s owners
- Coverage bias is when certain subjects, people, or issues are more or less visible in the news
- Mainstream bias means reporting stories that are “trending” with everyone else
- Partisan bias occurs when a report serves a political leaning
- Sensationalism bias favors extraordinary events, often crime, accidents and fear
- Statement bias is when coverage is slanted (through tone or presentation) against someone or something.
- Structural bias occurs when an person or issue receives more coverage because of media routines
Additionally, bias is found in reporting that favors or attacks a particular race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, or ethnic group.
Agenda Setting Theory
Gatekeeping describes the process by which stories are selected. Essentially, the person in charge (i.e. editor, producer, publisher, etc.) is supposed to select stories based on their newsworthiness. Which leads us to the concept of agenda setting theory — which is how the news media influences which topics are on the minds of people.
Ideally, stories would be selected based on their newsworthiness.
Newsworthiness is defined by
- Timeliness: Immediate, current information and events
- Proximity: Physically located within a community or region
- Conflict or Controversy: Differences between people or issues
- Human Interest: Stories about people that tell a greater truth
- Relevance: Information that helps you make a decision
Defining news solely by political leanings misses the point. It places more emphasis on the personal opinions of the reporters and shifts the focus away from other areas of bias. Agenda setting and media bias are influenced by a variety of factors such as, advertisers or sensationalism.
When this politically-based diad is created, liberal vs. conservative news, it opens up the door to some bad practices, such as:
- False balance, which creates the impression that two sides are evenly matched when one has a greater amount of evidence.
- Undue weight that gives a story more significance because it aligns with the outlet’s views.
- Speculative content that talks about what “could” or “might” occur, when those stories should be left to opinion formats.
- False timeliness, which cherrypicks an event without addressing similar, past events.
- Ventriloquism, which happens when a story selects an expert or witness only because they align with the content creator’s bias.
Setting up politically divided news outlets is disingenuous.
When viewers choose their news sources based only on their political leanings, they are ignoring important questions about what else is influencing the news agenda. Often, it’s advertisers, corporate interests, or sensationalism — the need to make money off of the content.
However, if you look through the lens of “newsworthiness”, political affiliation becomes much less important. In fact, you can avoid political bias by picking 3-5 headlines on the same topic from different news outlets (which the Allsides website actually provides on all major stories). By comparing consensus within that coverage, you quickly get a sense of “just the facts.”
Bots, Bloggers, and Big Money
Many people are simply exhausted with trying to determine what is real and what is fake. They’re worried about bots. They aren’t sure why foreign governments have cyber military units to spread disinformation. They feel like the talking heads are always screaming at them. And there is always some add for a pill, appliance or burger that should make you happier.
So, when a story pops up about a “conspiracy” that “the media ignored” it’s so tempting to click. However, this relies on the “poisoned well” logical fallacy.
The “Mainstream Media” poisoned-well argument asserts:
1. Some journalists, news stories, and media outlets have fallen short of journalistic standards in specific instances.
2. Therefore, all of the mainstream media stories are false or biased and cannot be trusted.
This argument is supposed to push you toward abandoning one of our key pillars of democracy — the free press.
From 2008 to 2018, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 25%. In 2008, about 114,000 newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers and videographers – worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and “other information services” (the best match for digital-native news publishers). By 2018, that number had declined to about 86,000, a loss of about 28,000 jobs.Pew Research Center
You’re smarter than that. You can learn to discern between a journalist who reported a story too quickly, leading to a correction, and a sensationalist fabrication from someone who is trying to sell you unregulated dietary supplements.
Who Are You?
This information should empower you. You can learn to spot false information — to the point that you don’t even click on it.
I’m not a journalist; I’m a content creator. I work in marketing — often ghostwriting for doctors, lawyers, environmental engineers, and even pastors. I know how to make you click and I know why we’re trying to make you click.
You click and someone gets paid.
It’s not a terrible thing when everyone is ethical about it. You want the information and entertainment. Often, the products and services actually meet your needs. However, everyone must be honest and hold themselves to a standard of truth.
Let’s work together. Support the journalists and outlets who understand that the media agenda is about more than politics on the left or right. Read a variety of sources before you repost a “breaking news” story. Take the time to understand the facts and press pause on relaying the information if the story broke too early.
Above all, don’t stop believing in the press. Even when it isn’t functioning at its best, it’s a vital check on power. Move forward armed with the education and information from Your Guide to Fake News, Media Bias and Fact-checking in the Post-Truth Era.