I usually don’t post about such political topics, but I’ve noticed a growing trend of disinformation and conspiracies. Frankly, people don’t know what to believe anywhere. They don’t know where to turn, and in their confusion, they turn to some poor sources of news. Having just finished my master’s dissertation on Russian manipulation of the American media ecosystem, I have performed a great deal of research on the topic. I thought I’d do my part by shining some light on emerging issues in news consumption and what we can do to all be better informed.
Attacks on Mainstream Media
One of the recent trends is a war against mainstream media (MSM). This movement has gained steam from President Trump, who frequently criticizes the mainstream media for bias or inaccuracy. But that begs the question: what is mainstream media? Although liberal media often comes under fire during these attacks on MSM, the term refers to any large news media outlet, including newspapers and broadcast media. Some examples would include CNN, Fox, MSNBC, New York Times, and so on. And they draw contrast to alternative media like smaller podcasts, journals, and websites.
MSM companies have large budgets and large staffs of experienced and qualified individuals. Thus, they can perform much more thorough research on a variety of topics compared to smaller organizations. These prestigious companies will also have a much easier time securing interviews and receiving insider information because they are viewed as more credible sources of news. As a result, the articles MSM produces are generally of higher quality.
But are MSM outlets perfect? No. Do they make mistakes? Of course. But these companies undergo something called “reality-check dynamics”. Media outlets seek truth in favor of opinion while delivering news that both confirms and disconfirms identities. To gain prominence, media outlets compete over the freshness and truth of their stories. Although sensationalism may attract viewers, it can also undermine truth-seeking. Media outlets can boost their own prominence and credibility by exposing other outlets for deviation from truth and objectivity (Benkler 2018:77-78).
So if MSM outlets say something inaccurate or biased, they will be called out on it. For example, on May 14, 2016, the New York Times published a story called “Crossing the Lines: How Donald Trump Behaved with Women in Private”. The story described Trump’s inappropriate behavior with a woman named Rowan Brewer Lane (Barbaro 2016:1). However, Lane’s words were taken out of context. MSNBC, among other outlets, was quick to criticize the story (Morning Joe 2016:1). Even though MSNBC is often criticized for liberal bias, the outlet still adhered to reality-check dynamics and called out the mistakes of a mainstream outlet like the New York Times.
Does that mean all false statements are called out? No. Concerning the cable news networks, Politifact’s PunditFact gives out scores to each major TV network for the amount of true or false statements they say. You can click on the TV tab and look at ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox. They also give scores for some of the TV/radio personalities and politicians. But don’t take the scores too seriously. They base their scores off only about 100 statements for each network, except for CBS, which has much fewer. Not to mention, they include MSNBC as part of NBC. Even if part of the same company, the content on MSNBC differs from that of NBC. Regardless, it’s clear MSM is not perfect.
However, with small, alternative outlets, people are less likely to call out misleading or biased information. They don’t have large audiences, so other media outlets have a lower incentive to correct them. Why bother correcting news so few people have heard? That means inaccurate information produced by alternative media is more likely to go unchecked.
Likewise, alternative media can produce more biased information. The public wants to consume both truth and identity-confirming narratives. Generally, the public holds moderate trust in media because not all truthful news confirms identities and not all identity-confirming narratives are truthful (Benkler 2018:78). However, if there is no way to say what is true or not, the public will accept the identity-confirming narratives without question. This means that people who consume alternative media will be easily misled by inaccurate and biased information.
But MSM can still spin truthful information in a way to create biased or misleading information. Right? Right. MSM isn’t perfect, as I said. But, that brings me to my next point.
A Varied Diet
Every outlet will have some bias, so don’t follow just one outlet. If you want a more complete picture of the news, you need to see it from multiple sides.
There are plenty of helpful charts that show you which outlets lean which way. This media bias chart from ad fontes media shows both the political bias and overall quality of each outlet. You can also look at this open web map of media outlets in 2016 from Network Propaganda, which also shows the prominence of each outlet and the relation among outlets. The more citations an outlet receives from other outlets, the larger the node and prominence. The more citations between two outlets, the closer the nodes and their relationship. Blue outlets are left, light blue center-left, green center, light red center-right, and red right. Partisanship is determined by the amount of a site’s stories tweeted by users who also retweeted tweets by Clinton or Trump during the election.
Though neither chart is perfect, they give you a good idea of where each outlet leans. Media towards the center is preferable since it is more likely to be objective. And as you can see from the ad fontes chart, center media generally produces content of higher quality.
But it’s okay to follow news from more partisan news. In fact, I would encourage it. If you want to get a more wholesome view of the news and the arguments being discussed, you should see what people across the political spectrum are saying. Just make sure you balance out both poles. If you watch MSNBC for example, it’s only fair for you to watch Fox. Also, keep in mind that partisan news is partisan. Take everything with a grain of salt and a hint of suspicion.
With a varied diet of news, you will learn what information different outlets agree on. You will also learn what information they do not agree on. When disagreements happen, it becomes your job to find the truth. Don’t just roll over and choose the interpretation you like best. Research the subject. Find the facts.
How to Read News
But how do you find the facts? How do you know what’s true and what’s false? You need to learn to read articles like a professional. Here are a few tricks:
Sources sources sources. Look for sources. Most articles will include links or citations to show you where they’re getting their information. If they do, that gives you the opportunity to check the source for yourself. Does the source say exactly what the article claims? Is there more context? Or is no source included at all? If not, that’s a bad sign. You can’t be expected to trust information without a source.
Beware opinion articles. Opinion articles do not represent pure, unadulterated fact. They may use facts, and they may even claim to speak the truth. However, there is a reason they are opinion articles and not simply articles. In the end, they only represent the interpretations and opinions of the author. Thus, it’s no surprise most opinion pieces come with a disclaimer that the contents of the article do not reflect the official view of the media outlet as a whole.
Moreover, look for emotive words and phrases. Journalism should be objective and factual. There should be no words or phrases that pass judgment or strive to create an emotional response. Quotes from relevant actors or parties are fine. However, the author should merely state the facts and nothing more.
I have also noticed a few techniques associated with Russian propaganda that have slipped into American media. One of them is gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person uses denial, contradiction, and misdirection to sow doubt in a targeted group and make them question their own perception. An easy example is when a politician says “X” and later claims they never said “X.” However, this is also accompanied by reciprocal accusations. “No, I didn’t say X. You said X.” For example, when Trump was accused of colluding with Russia, he responded by accusing Clinton of colluding with Russia. It distracts the accusers and forces them to defend themselves.
Another technique is the straw man argument. A straw man argument is an argument based on a misrepresentation of the opponent’s view. Politician 1 says X. Politician 2 says that Politician 1 said Y. Politician 2 then refutes Y, as if he were refuting X. A common straw man I’ve heard is that Democrats want to take everyone’s guns away. It allows Republicans to galvanize their base against Democrats, even though most Democrats just want stricter background checks.
The final technique I wanted to discuss (though there are others) is whataboutisms. Whataboutisms attempt to defeat an opponent’s argument by accusing them of hypocrisy. I hear it all the time. Trump often used this during the campaign. Instead of defending himself against collusion accusations, Trump tried to derail the conversation by saying “What about Clinton’s emails? What about Uranium One? What about…?” The whataboutism may present a legitimate concern, but it is not relevant to the discussion. It is only a distraction. Even if Politician 1 did something wrong, it does not clear Politician 2 from his wrongdoings. Keep an eye out for these tricks in media, and do not be distracted from the issue at hand.
You’re probably saying, “I don’t know…this is a lot of work.” Yes, it can be a lot of work. It’s so much easier to simply read the news and accept it without question. I suspect many of you will do that. That’s why it’s important to find a credible medium, or several.
But at the very least, promise me this. If you’re going to argue with someone about an issue, you will do the research. If you don’t want to research everything all the time, at least research the issues that matter to you. You’ll be better for it, and we’ll all be better for it when it comes time to vote.
(2015). ABC’s File. [online]. Politifact, p.1. Available at: https://www.politifact.com/punditfact/tv/abc/ [Accessed 30 Sept. 2019].
(2016). Woman in NYT Trump piece disputes report. [online]. MSNBC, p.1. Available at: https://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/watch/woman-in-nyt-s-trump-piece-disputes-report-686463555992 [Accessed 1 August 2019].
(2018). Media Bias Chart 4.0. [online]. Ad fontes, p.1. Available at: https://www.adfontesmedia.com/product/media-bias-chart-4-0-downloadable-image-and-standard-license-copy/ [Accessed 30 Sept. 2019]/
Barbaro, M. and Twohey, M. (2016). Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private. [online]. The New York Times, p.1. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/us/politics/donald-trump-women.html [Accessed 1 August 2019].
Benkler, Y., Faris, R., and Roberts, H. (2018). Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. [online]. Oxford University Press, p.49, 77, 78. Available at: https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/oso/9780190923624.001.0001/oso-9780190923624 [Accessed 30 Sept. 2019].