Posts Tagged ‘media’
Spend 10 minutes discussing any hot-button issue, and you will inevitably hear something about the media.
Most of us take the term for granted, as though we all know exactly what it means. It’s like a proper name. When you say, “Joe’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture Joe (assuming we know him). When you say, “The media’s got it all wrong,” we automatically picture “the media.”
With the media, however, 10 different people may picture 12 different things—entirely different things.
The media is what’s known as a collective noun: a single term that stands for a group of individuals. Collective nouns get used a lot in sensitive conversations these days, for better and worse. For instance, you might hear someone make a statement about the mainstream media. Or the gays. Or the blacks. Or women—as in the classic question “What do women want?”
The last three examples have received a lot of blowback in recent years, and deservedly so. They’re often said with a tinge of disparagement born of certain isms: racism, sexism, homophobia. Used in this way, these collective nouns seem to assume that all gay people think alike, or all women want the same thing.
That’s obviously bollocks. Most of us (I hope) have learned this.
So why haven’t we learned it with the media?
When we refer to the media, do we mean The Economist, with its unapologetic free-market bias and incisive reporting of underreported stories around the world? Do we mean The Atlantic, whose essays always seem to highlight the one perspective that never would have occurred to anyone? Are we referring to David Brooks and his thoughtful conservative point of view? Or Maureen Dowd and her irreverent quasi-gossipy sometimes-liberal views?
You might think I’m saying we should stop using collective nouns altogether. I might like to, but I can’t. They do have their uses, in large part because while we are unique individuals, we really do belong to groups with similar characteristics that often (but not always) shape who we are. So it’s difficult to have a full discussion of mass shootings without considering that nearly all the perpetrators are men, or to dialogue about terrorist attacks without considering that many attackers (but not all) have subscribed to violent and dubious interpretations of Islam.
Same with the media. They do have things in common. There is a bent toward the unusual or sensational: hence the old journalistic maxim “if it bleeds, it leads.” Broadcast news, in particular, works within severe time constraints (a half-hour to cover the world), so the reports may be simplistic. All journalists are biased because all journalists are human, and all humans have biases.
Bottom line, I think it’s essential for us to listen carefully for these collective nouns—and to the people who use them, including ourselves. Ask yourself what they mean by that term in that conversation. If we do that, we can take steps to question stereotypes, drill down into simplistic images, and get closer to a clear picture of reality, a rather important basis for any dialogue.
Note: this piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post on January 31. It’s written primarily for my progressive friends, and the intent is not to bash Mr. Trump (though I do criticize him–in a measured way, I hope–where I think it’s accurate and essential to the argument). Rather, it’s become clear that many, many people are struggling to cope with their inner turmoil in the wake of the U.S. presidential election; after two months of my own struggling, I’ve found something like a way forward, so I’m sharing it in the hope that it’ll help.
Ever since November 8, like so many other people, I’ve been wrestling with Trump hangover.
Perhaps you know the symptoms. Vague but persistent anxiety. Occasional nausea. An overwhelming sluggishness. The nagging sense that you should be “over this by now.”
Being a spiritual writer, I took all of these symptoms, as well as their underlying cause, into prayer and contemplation, weighing a lot of input from various sources. Finally, the beginnings of a treatment regimen are starting to take shape, and I thought I’d share in case it helps.
First, the obvious but easily forgotten fact: Trump hangover is widespread, and you’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. The evidence indicates that the transition to President Trump is a seismic shift in the way the president treats the presidency—a shift to less stable ground. If you’re anxious, it’s with good reason.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Trump is a master at keeping his drama in the headlines—daily and sometimes continually. Between our always-on news culture and our relentless social media stream, we can’t even begin to recover from the last headline when the next one comes.
If you’ve struggled to keep your head above water, it’s because you’re immersed in a tidal wave.
In my own inner work around Trump hangover, I’ve had to make some rigorous distinctions that, before, I could slide by without making. News vs. commentary. Substantial news vs. not really news. Policy developments vs. the white noise of our public square. All in the service of regaining my center, preserving my integrity, re-establishing my boundaries, so I can think and act from a place of deep stability.
What does this look like in practice? For me, it goes something like this:
- Diagnosing the root cause. It’s important to see that, beyond the normal policy differences and Cabinet appointments that serve as fodder for disagreement, two peculiar traits underpin the Trump administration so far: an apparent absence of sustained thought, and a disregard for shared meaning. Words and phrases are used more for effect in the moment—and just as quickly forgotten—than to make policy arguments over time. We are asked to believe official pronouncements over what we apprehend with our eyes and ears. Compelling factual evidence is dismissed with simple denials. In a world where the way we learn things means nothing, we lose our footing. Which leads to the boundary-setting steps:
- News intake strategy 1: distinguishing fact from commentary from blather. For a while now, I have found it useful to focus my attention only on what the president does, not on what he says, or what others say about him. I’m also ignoring most commentary, as it simply inflames my anger without contributing anything of substance. (Two exceptions for me: David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.) For right now, just the facts, ma’am.
- News intake strategy 2: look-screen-decide. Whenever I see a Trump-related news item, I look at the headline, then screen it for whether it’s (a) actual fact vs. commentary vs. blather, and (b) actual news about something of substance, vs., well, the opposite. If the topic is substantive, I read the article; if not, I ignore it with the mantra “not news, don’t care.” This keeps me away from such tempests-in-teapots as the controversy over crowd size at the inauguration. (A positive side effect: this look-screen-decide technique also helps me blithely ignore 90% of social media political posts.)
- Picking your spots. For years I have cared deeply about dialogue across divides, and I want to continue that work. Anyone with family and friends on the “other side” has an interest in doing the same. For me, nothing about that sort of dialogue has to change, except one thing: I’m no longer interested in talking about Mr. Trump specifically. You want to talk gun rights, immigration policy, deregulation of healthcare, I’m up for it. Defend Mr. Trump’s behavior to me, and my mental health requires that I draw the line.
What does this give me? A sense of power, of agency, of proper boundaries set. It feels as though I’ve regained ownership of my own feelings and actions. I get to be an engaged citizen, but a healthy engaged citizen.
If early days are any indication, the news is going to be a tough emotional slog for the next four years. But maybe this will allow me to get through with my deepest self intact. May it do the same for you.
Last night, BBC’s World News America led with yet another story on the suffering in Syria. I was reluctant to watch it—not because I don’t care about that horrendous conflict, but because it was yet another story.
How much news from Syria, or from anywhere, do we need? How much can we take? Is there a point at which we “get the point” and can skip the following stories with impunity? How many of the “following stories”?
Let’s start with basic attitudes toward news. For me, the news is required reading/viewing. I try to write with nuance about some difficult and complex issues, and there’s no way to do that without a great deal of input, both hard news and diverse analysis. For others, news might guide them in how to vote, which charities to support, or where to roll up their sleeves and help out.
My understanding of my faith also plays a role. It tells me that every human being bears the image of God, and that God cares deeply, massively, for those who suffer. So I’m called to care deeply for them too. The way I can connect with their stories, their situations, is (in part) through the news.
News is everywhere these days. We have 24/7 news stations. A myriad of websites are always available, always telling stories. Some of us throwbacks still get the newspaper every day.
The problem is, the macro-level stories and issues take time to develop—usually months or years. So these news media, needing something to fill the space, tell slight variations of the same story from one day to the next.
It’s a barrage.
And with each day’s news, the decision comes up again—especially in stories that involve suffering. Watch too many of these, and we risk becoming desensitized. There’s a limit to how much we can take. It’s why a lot of people either check out entirely or (as I’ve done) go on news fasts.
On the other hand, maybe the next story provides an insight I never had before. Or the story on suffering in Syria tells (as it often does) of this mother in that city who has lost x children in the conflict. If I miss the story, I lose the insight, or I fail to connect with this particular divine image bearer.
Of course, this isn’t just true of news from faraway lands. How many stories about our local homeless folks do we need to hear before the same difficult decision—to watch or not to watch this segment, on this night—faces us?
Ultimately, we make the decision story by story, day by day. And I don’t think it gets easier. Have you found a good way to absorb news stories without going to overload? How much news do you need?
If you were channel surfing in the U.S. last Thursday evening, you might have caught Grey’s Anatomy on ABC or Bones on FOX. It’s what you’d expect on Thursday, right?
Not this past Thursday. Right around the time Bones and Booth were assessing their umpteenth skeletal murder victim, a major presidential announcement was taking place. On the Big Four networks—ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC—it was nowhere to be seen.
Americans have grown up with the image of presidents plastered all over their TV screens for reasons both pivotal and not so pivotal. This one clearly falls into the pivotal category: congressional Republicans are predicting dire consequences, and the resulting rift may determine whether the U.S. government gets anything done in the next two years.
If there’s sound reasoning behind the decision not to air the President’s speech, you won’t hear it from the networks. All of them have declined comment. So let’s take a look at some possible explanations:
- It was already on Facebook. Media executives may have reasoned that the President’s Facebook video, released on Wednesday, made his Thursday night address redundant. But it’s unlikely: the Facebook video was only 59 seconds long and laid out no specifics.
- The networks were obfuscating for Obama or showing their preference for Republicans. Both are variants of the age-old claim of media bias. The fact that opposing pundits see opposing biases in the same event speaks volumes about this alternative. (I wrote about “media bias” more extensively in Chapter 3 of my book.)
- It’s sweeps month—the regular period during which networks estimate viewership and, as a result, set local ad rates for the coming months. The sweeps explanation strikes me as both entirely possible and disturbing: in this one instance, at least, the networks that have historically played a major role in delivering news opted for profit over public service.
- It’s complicated. This is a variation of points 1 and 2. As disturbing as I find the networks’ decision, it would have been far worse in, say, 1973, when the Big Three networks were the dominant purveyors of news. With the media landscape so fragmented, and Americans getting their news from a myriad of platforms, perhaps the networks decided the impact of their decisions would be relatively minor, shoving sweeps month to the fore.
- Univision will take care of it. I hesitate to even mention this one, because it is ugly. I don’t want to believe that any network executive might have said, or thought, “Hey, immigration is a Latino issue, so let ‘their’ network handle it.” To the extent that anyone thought this, it speaks to the persistent “us and them” orientation that entrenches our horrifying racial and ethnic divides.
I am not sure what the real explanation is. I do think, though, that network news still carries some obligation to the public trust—which means the networks owe us an explanation. How disappointing that they have chosen not to provide it.
It doesn’t feel good to criticize The PBS NewsHour. The program is one of my favorite sources of news and insight; the producers take extraordinary care in selecting guests for each segment, bringing together experts that together present a careful, balanced, in-depth analysis.
This past Friday, though, one segment disturbed me—and, in the process, served to remind me of the need for a “balanced media diet.”
The story concerned the recent violence in Iraq’s Anbar province, and the role of al-Qaeda therein. I was delighted with their choice of guests: former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and former Marine Captain Bing West, who spent a great deal time in Anbar and has written extensively on the war.
The longer they talked, though, the less I could escape the nagging sense that a huge part of the story was missing.
This nagging sense didn’t come in a vacuum. Last September, at a conference on communication and conflict, I heard a penetrating analysis by Ahmed Hassin, a researcher at Australia’s Deakin University, on the role of traditional clans in supporting the nascent democracy in Iraq. Ahmed’s presentation astounded me with a level of nuance that is almost impossible to find in American reporting on the Middle East.
That nuance haunted me as I listened to the NewsHour guests. So I decided to take a look at Iraqi news sources to see what they had to say.
Sure enough, there was a lot more to this story than met the eye.
Crocker and West spoke confidently about al-Qaeda overplaying its hand, the clans united against al-Qaeda, and even “good guys” and “bad guys.” Aswat al Iraq and Iraq Daily described Sunni-Shiite tensions over the lack of Sunni representation in government, security forces’ breakup of a Sunni protest site, the resignation of 44 Members of Parliament over said breakup, etc.
Were Crocker and West wrong? Not necessarily. It’s hard to dispute calling al-Qaeda “the bad guys,” of course. Widespread clan resistance to al-Qaeda may still be in place. Still, the Iraqi news media made it clear that the situation is more nuanced—and perhaps less boldly optimistic—than the NewsHour guests described it.
The point here is not so much to sort out the “real story” in this specific situation as it is to point out the value of the “balanced media diet”: news from sources diverse in terms of geography, nationality, political orientation, culture, even ethnicity and gender. When we absorb this diversity of news, we see that few stories are as simple as one news segment from a single source will make them appear. Certainly few stories are as simple as partisans make them out to be.
Once we see the depth and nuance behind an issue, we realize what we know and, more important, how much we don’t know. This realization, in turn, can fuel our curiosity—and our willingness to hear others whose views may not be the same as ours. Over time, we start looking for depth and nuance in other issues, which gives rise to nagging discomfort like the type I felt during the NewsHour segment.
Have you ever noticed this? Did a news story leave you with the feeling that something was wrong, or at least incomplete? Feel free to share your story here.
Sometimes, in this U.S. election season, you have a dig through a certain amount of misleading verbiage to get a better handle on the story.
This came to mind last week when a startling tidbit appeared on Facebook: Fox News had called Paul Ryan a liar. To be sure, other media were making similar accusations shortly after the Republican vice-presidential candidate gave his acceptance speech to the national convention. But a conservative news organization slamming a conservative candidate?
I pay close attention to this sort of thing. When a person or organization goes against the party line, it sometimes reveals a penetrating insight about the truth of the matter. So if both The New York Times and Fox News (traditionally perceived as liberal and conservative, respectively) were accusing Ryan of lying, perhaps he was. That could be a serious charge.
Was it accurate?
I clicked through the Facebook link to the story. There it was in living color: “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”
Wow. So Fox News did say that.
Not so fast. At the bottom of the article was a brief bio of the author—Sally Kohn, described as “a Fox News contributor and writer”—and a link. One click brought me to her website, another to her bio. A close reading revealed that her writing, her experience, and her activities run the gamut of the political spectrum, with an emphasis toward causes and media traditionally perceived as liberal.
So the Facebook post was inaccurate on two counts. First, Fox News didn’t write about Paul Ryan’s speech; Sally Kohn of Fox News did. Second, Sally Kohn does not appear to toe the conservative party line. Her view of Ryan’s address is less remarkable when you consider that.
What’s my point? I am not by any means impugning Sally Kohn’s writing or integrity. Nor am I making any judgment on Paul Ryan’s speech (I haven’t watched it yet). What I am emphasizing is the importance of getting the full story, ideally reading it in several sources on different points of the political spectrum. In my book (now available for pre-order), I call this the “balanced media diet”: if we get our news from, say, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or The National Review and Mother Jones, or The Economist and the International Socialist Review—or, even better, all six—we’ll have a far broader knowledge base from which to test the veracity of any given news item.
Most likely, we’ll also be more inclined to dialogue. One (sometimes painful) effect of a balanced media diet is that we come face to face with the legitimate viewpoints of the “other side.” We can understand how its adherents might come to the assumptions they cherish and the conclusions they put forth. We begin to see that our view is not necessarily the One True View, or even one of two opposing views, but rather one among many. Our thinking gets more nuanced. When this happens, we are more open to dialogue with our adversaries—because it’s harder to think of them as adversaries any longer.
Have you found news items that aren’t what they first appear to be? Have you read a publication from the other side of an issue and found it more enlightening than infuriating? I’d love to hear your experiences along these lines.
If Michael Kitchens’ research is any indication, the answer to both questions is: not many. An assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College, Kitchens conducted a study that investigated whether people’s religious backgrounds influenced their choice of media on religion. He and his students asked 213 participants to rate their preference for one of three fictitious research summaries: one with positive information about religion, one with negative information about religion, and one neutral.
You can guess what the study found. Religious people preferred the positive summary. Non-religious people preferred the negative summary.
In an article on his research, Kitchens extrapolates from these findings to the political realm. It makes sense, he writes, that “people’s political identity fuels the need to seek information that confirms” their beliefs. This, he reasons, has given rise to a fractured media landscape in which “media sources continue to validate people’s preconceived notions and worldviews.”
I think he’s spot-on here. What surprises me, though, is his bleak outlook for the future: he says that “harmony is unattainable” and the best course of action is to learn how to conduct “a reasonable debate about ideas.”
But how do we even get to the debate if we are so suspicious of the “other side”? That suspicion comes from the same cycle that Kitchens is on about. As we take in the news media that agree with us, we inevitably hear criticisms of those who disagree. In today’s toxic public square, those criticisms are particularly nasty: we hear our adversaries’ motives questioned, their patriotism impugned, their truthfulness cast into doubt. So how can we approach them with anything that appears like listening?
What if, however, we took one simple step long before the debate: what if we all read or viewed media that disagree with us?
What if we all committed to reading one newsmagazine, watching one news program, or visiting one blog whose worldview is completely different from ours? We could do this not just across political lines, but across other divides too: divides of gender, color, sexual orientation, and yes, religion.
Here’s what I’ve seen happen: once we take in this media from proponents of the “other side,” we realize that their thinking has some rationality behind it, that their motives have more integrity than we’re led to believe, that maybe a few of their points make sense—even if we still disagree with them. This opens our minds a bit. The next time we approach these people or their ideas, we might be just a bit more inclined to listen, and our minds open wider.
Now I’m not talking about the ranting media—particularly the talk radio programs whose sole purpose is to inflame passions and get ratings. I’m talking about thoughtful columnists and pundits who believe something different. This is why I read David Brooks and Kathleen Parker as well as Cynthia Tucker. Maybe I need to suck it up and read George Will, too.
What about you? If you could read one columnist or magazine or blog from the “other side,” which would you pick? Share it here. It might just be a resource no one else has thought about.
Forget bias. Never mind sensationalism. The biggest problem with the media today is that human beings are involved.
Why is that a problem? Because every human being comes with her own upbringing, experiences, values, and opinions. Try as they might, then—and I sincerely believe they try their hardest—journalists can never attain perfect objectivity. Of course there’s bias; it can’t be any other way.
As a result, no one media outlet can provide the diversity of perspective that reasoned dialogue requires. To prepare ourselves for dialogue, then, we need a “balanced media diet”: a healthful blend of newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, TV news, and other sources that provide a cross-section of viewpoints. I took a look at this in my last post.
Now, what does a balanced media diet look like?
Part of it is pretty evident: we strive to absorb views across the political spectrum, as President Obama mentioned in his recent commencement address. Conservatives who love The Wall Street Journal or the National Review could try reading Mother Jones. Liberals who get their news from the Huffington Post could tune in to FOX News now and then. (Stop cringing. This hurts me worse than it hurts you.)
Straightforward, right? Except diversity comes in more than one flavor. For instance:
- Ethnicity. If Anglos like me tapped into Latino news sources, how much more would we learn about the immigration debate?
- Gender. GQ readers, when is the last time you picked up Ms. Magazine? And vice versa?
- Faith. If atheists subscribed to God’s Politics, how much common ground might they find?
- Reporting vs. analysis. Reporters by definition are held to a higher standard of balance and objectivity. Getting all one’s news from analysis and op-eds makes it too easy to absorb predigested opinion, however, thoughtful, as fact.
There’s another way to balance your media diet too: perusing media that themselves present a diversity of opinions. I think of these as the “mutual funds” of news. Just as each mutual fund contains a diverse array of investments, so these diverse media present us with more breadth of perspective per hour spent ingesting the news.
I personally gravitate toward these “mutual funds.” From the PBS NewsHour I get in-depth investigations of a few issues each evening, usually with a well-struck balance of insight and opinion. Our local newspaper carries a diverse blend of conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between. In the pages of Tikkun I read social and spiritual insights from across the spectrum of faith traditions. Because of its thoughtful insights and analysis, The Economist also makes my list; it gives me a bias toward the free market while reporting on some of the world’s least reported stories.
What happens when we take in a diverse media mix? Inevitably, we come across the same story from different angles—and begin to see the legitimacy of each point of view. The complexity of the situation and the lack of easy answers become clear. We grow instinctively skeptical of easy answers for any issue. We start to take political and social heroes with several grains of salt, knowing how fallible humans are and how quickly we fall. Overall, we gain wisdom, empathy, and an ability to live with ambiguity.
Of course, we can’t read or watch everything we can put our hands on. But to the extent we broaden our media mix, we broaden our perspective. And to the extent we broaden our perspective, we prepare ourselves more deeply for dialogue.
I must be hanging around the wrong media. Only two days ago did I become aware of the wild rumors surrounding health care reform.
The strangest of the strange is that under the new plan, seniors must undergo counseling that encourages them to cut their lives short. (Factcheck.org, an arm of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, debunks this rumor in a recent post.) But there are other rumors as well: The plan amounts to government rationing of health care. Ordinary people would lose their current insurance under the proposed plan. Health care reform will cover illegal immigrants.
Some of these rumors, on their face, involve legitimate concerns and deserve accurate answers. Others don’t stand up to a moment’s thought. The key for our discussion here, though, is that none of them are true—and yet some government leaders and pundits keep spreading them.
This is reprehensible: not just because misinformation is reprehensible in itself, but because it makes serious dialogue—which might lead to a more satisfactory resolution—much more difficult.
This is nothing new, of course. With every issue du jour, it seems, comes at least one claim or well-turned phrase that subtly shapes public perceptions. That might be fine if the phrase precisely captured the truth of the issue at hand. Unfortunately, those who craft such phrases are often less interested in seeking out truth—or even dialogue—than in promoting their argument.
As an example, think of how Republicans have used the “tax and spend” label to taint legislation from Democrats, regardless of the merit of the particular bill at hand. (Don’t most bills—even those for the best programs—involve taxation and spending?) Or consider the phrase “a woman’s right to choose” (or even the terms pro-choice and pro-life), as if the entire complexity and delicacy of the abortion question could be boiled down to a single sound bite.
When we hear these words and phrases over and over, we automatically begin to assume that they’re the only way to think about the issue. To borrow a business cliché, these terms set the “box”—and make it more difficult to think outside it.
Health care reform is far too complex and nuanced an issue to reduce to sound bites, let alone wild rumors. Dialogue, in contrast, would help us explore those nuances and bring them into the light. But where do we start?
Maybe we start with questions. Last year, realizing how woefully ignorant I was about single-payer and HSAs and whatnot, I started asking questions about health care. Maybe the answers to the questions we raise would start a dialogue. Maybe the dialogue would take hold—and reach the people who make the decisions.
Idealistic? Perhaps. But dialogue has more potential to generate a satisfactory solution than the rumors do. So let’s start the conversation.