During the height of the recent Kavanaugh controversy, a friend of mine expressed his frustrations with the way that both Republicans and Democrats chose to communicate with one another.
“That’s why I hate the media,” he told me.
That certainly was not the first time I had heard that phrase. As I progress further into my journalistic career, I’ve gathered that it’s one I should get used to hearing. Needless to say, if I cannot manage to convince my friends (who are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt) of the media’s vital importance, it is clear I am going to have my work cut out for me.
One of the problems I see with hating “the media” is that that term is so vague, it is utterly meaningless on its own. The next time you hear someone say they have a problem with “the media,” follow up with some questions.
Which media outlet(s) do you find problematic?
What problems did you find with their reporting?
How were you able to identify these problems?
A lot of people are instinctively reactionary but when they are pressed to defend their position, they cannot think of real-world examples. Before engaging in a discussion about why we should trust the media, first make sure that they have a real reason to distrust the media in the first place.
Now, this is where things get tricky. There are plenty of examples in everyday life of media outlets aggrandizing headlines or splicing sound bites in order to create a bigger buzz.
Sound bites are often edited for brevity simply because most people do not have the attention span to listen to drawn-out conversations riddled with unnecessary detail. As long as the editing does not change the intended message, it is not problematic.
Similarly, headlines generally must be captivating and brief, which sometimes means using words that do not fully capture what took place. It should be obvious that headlines do not tell the full story. They are not designed to.
Of course, this is not to say that headlines cannot be unethical or misleading. Most of the tabloids seen in the supermarket display excellent examples every week, such as MEGHAN MARKLE AND PRINCE HARRY IN SEX & DRUGS SCANDAL (National Enquirer), a non-story that was actually about Meghan Markle’s father confessing that he has used drugs. Lots of internet publications are guilty of tactics like this, too. As an example, the article American Vandal Season 3: Release Date, Cast, Plot, Trailer and Everything You Need to Know (Digital Spy) actually contains none of the information claimed in the headline. There’s also the ever-popular question headline, like: U.S. Mid-term Elections: Can we Tell if Democrats Will Win? (BBC) where the answer is: no.
If media outlets occasionally use a clickbait-y headline to drive traffic, this does not mean that they are necessarily unethical. It would be foolish to dismiss any and every outlet who has published dramatized headlines. But if media outlets make a habit of publishing those exaggerated and ridiculous headlines, they probably are neither ethical nor credible.
This is something that most journalists learn in their first year of college. Several of my professors went to great lengths explaining the dangers of sensationalism in journalism and how above all, our focus should be the truth, not generating more revenue. However, not all “media outlets” have equal regard for that truth.
A simple fact about news reporting (more specifically, news reporters) is that bias will always exist. Even outlets which have been universally praised for their honest and fair reporting have biases (Al Jazeera, Associated Press, etc.). Journalism inherently requires choosing which information to include in a story and which information to leave out and that decision will be affected by biases. Yet, unless one can prove that these biases lead to dishonesty, they are somewhat immaterial. The next time someone says that they do not trust the “mainstream media” on the grounds of biases, ask them to prove how those biases lead to inconsistency.
Simply dismissing a media outlet because we feel that it leans a certain way politically is exactly how so many of us end up inside of echo-chambers, picking and choosing our beliefs based on what makes us feel good with little regard for the truth.
It is important to recognize that not all bias is created equal. Rational thought is turned into complete anarchy when people try to claim that The New York Times and Breitbart are in the same vein of journalism just because they both have biases (the former leaning left with the latter leaning far-right).
Breitbart, one of the most visited conservative news websites, regularly sets itself apart from The Times by publishing headlines such as: Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy, Hoist It High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage, or Gays Have Made Us Dumber, It’s Time to Get Back in the Closet.While these headlines alone may not constitute concrete evidence that Breitbart lacks credibility, they represent some of the red flags that people should be looking out for when determining media outlet credibility. Unfortunately, those red flags are not always so obvious.
Now, this is not meant to imply that Breitbart is the right-leaning counterpart to The New York Times, nor is it meant to imply that The Times is without its flaws. Right-leaning newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post are credible and do not regularly sacrifice their integrity the way Breitbart does.
The differences in media outlets are not characterized by their political and/or religious affiliations as much as they are characterized by their regard for journalistic integrity and the truth. Herein lies the true problem with hating “the media.” It is inconsistent to hate two media outlets for the same reason when they hold opposite mission statements.
Breitbart’s mission statement reads: “#WAR has been our motto since the days of Andrew Breitbart, and we use it whenever we go to war against our three main targets, which are, in order: Hollywood and the mainstream media, number one; the Democratic Party and the institutional left, number two; and the Republican establishment in Washington, number three.”
And The New York Times’ mission statement reads: “The core purpose of The New York Times is to enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information. Producing content of the highest quality and integrity is the basis for our reputation and the means by which we fulfill the public trust and our customers’ expectations.”
It seems to me that the most important distinction to make between outlets like Breitbart and NYT is not in the content that they produce but in their very motivation for producing it in the first place.