Engaging Culture

The News Media and America’s Polarization

Many are saying the recent election was the most polarizing in American history. While it can be argued that numerous elections throughout the history of our country have been remarkably nasty, there’s one element today that will make it more difficult than ever (maybe impossible) to unify this country:

The news media.

Never in our history have we seen a more unrelenting, brutal, and partisan news industry, and the Internet and the massive numerical growth of TV channels is behind it. Think of it this way – with more competition between 24/7 news networks like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and all the others, including entries from Russia, Japan, and the Arab world (which are now on a growing number of US cable networks), the drive to compete is intense.

Controversy and conflict attracts viewers, so it’s no surprise that news programs today are blowing issues way out of proportion in order to make an impact. This week a friend was in Washington, DC and sent me a text message that about 35 people upset about the election results were protesting outside the White House. But once the story made it to most news networks, you’d have thought the White House was about to be burned to the ground.

The credibility of the news media continues to drop, and with good reason. Just check out this video of how many of the supposed “experts” got the election wrong:

So what do we do? I’m not anti-media – in fact my M.A. is in Journalism. I love the business, but the truth is, it isn’t going to change soon, because the business model is simply broken. Honesty and clarity have given way to the controversial and provocative on a daily basis, in a relentless effort to keep ratings up. The problem is, most people today – especially younger adults – don’t take the time to investigate the issues. As a result, they’re captive to the social media memes, blogs, and rants from who knows where.

So what should we do? Here’s a few suggestions:

1) Understand off the top that certain news outlets are highly partisan. Some would say that all media outlets are partisan by nature, but we should at least know the playing field. For instance, The New York Times and MSNBC might as well be the in-house media outlets for the Democratic party. Fox News is rooting for the Right. I could go down the list, but you get the picture. When you hear a story, vet the source.

2) Make sure you are getting your information from reliable sources – preferably multiple reliable sources. With the explosion of blogs and social media, everyone is an expert these days and everyone (credible or not) has an opinion. Make sure you listen to people who know what the heck they’re talking about. And if you’re not sure, check sites like Snopes.com who try to sort it all out. And for the record – most of the supposedly “fact checker” websites are highly partisan as well.

3) Become a natural skeptic. I hate saying that because I want to believe everyone. But there are so many competing voices out there, we need to develop a skeptical nature. Push back. Ask questions. Don’t be embarrassed. Find the truth.

4) Teach your children how to evaluate what they hear from the media. I worry about a generation growing up getting news from social media. Facebook is currently under fire for slanting their posts during the election. I was filming a project in Washington, DC last week across from Ferragut Square. During a break, we watched about 20 young people staging a pretty lame “protest” against Donald Trump. They were all white, well dressed, and very young. They looked like they were trying way too hard to appear relevant, and their signs looked like something their moms help them make. I asked one why they were protesting, and he said the new president was “going to lock up Muslims, deprive all of us of our rights, and destroy America.” I asked him what information he based that premise on.

He just stared at me.

I’m not a Donald Trump fan, but you have to admit, the hysteria has gotten way out of hand, and ignorance of the issues amplified by social media is a big part of the problem.

5) Finally, don’t pass on social media statements if you can’t be sure it’s the truth. Start the habit of vetting your sources and question friends who post what you know is false. If we don’t all start educating and challenging each other, we’ll forever be at the mercy of news platforms who spend more time growing their audience than they spend reporting actual news.

At one time, Walter Cronkite, television anchor of CBS News was the “most trusted man in America.”

Those days are gone.

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  1. Great post! In this social media age it is super easy to quickly read 140 characters or less and endorse it by retweeting and reposting. Let’s stop our FOMO and take the time to read the information behind a post before we fire away. 5-minutes won’t hurt you but a hasty repost will hurt your credibility.

  2. Love this post. I recommend when I started my job as a newspaper reporter for a daily newspaper in the political bureau in the state capitol. The first thing my editor told me is that he does not cover Republicans and he hates them. I was shocked but thankful that he was upfront about his bias since I was more of a conservative Republican at the time.

    That was my baptism into covering politics. Their was a ton of mud slinging on both sides and so much misinformation thrown around. I challenged my kids who are both voters to read the candidates platforms, do their own home work and not rely on the media to slant their decision. More than ever I think my kids generation needs to do their home work when hysteria erupts on a news story.

    I’m also an editor and their is HUGE pressure to write headlines that are almost “click bait” that generate shares and traffic. I think that might be part of the problem that we are under pressure to generate traffic which might force us to rewrite the truth to get clicks and shares. I pray that my boss isn’t reading this lol. So we do need to be more critical of our sources and yet I think the culture within journalism needs an overhaul.

  3. Great post, Phil. I know young people who are coming unglued about how bad the results of this election are. They get all their news from social media. The most common word I hear is ‘fear’. The media, echoed on Facebook, is the main culprit.

    1. Great question Nathan. As long as there are so many competitors out there, it will probably be impossible. There have been a few alternative ideas floated, like a hybrid non-profit/for-profit model. That has some possibilities.

  4. Great article. The #1 thing I’m trying to teach the next generation is that social media is the new biased media. This election and the video you posted are really good proof of that.

    Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube have all been found to filter content towards a liberal perspective. Things like hand-curating trending topics, banning of YouTube channels, promoting a hand-selected group of accounts in search results, etc.

    Another topic I’d love to hear your perspective on is the silent trump voters and all of the cultural reasons behind that. I know personally, many that I know felt like a Trump sticker on their car would result in their car getting keyed because of the hostility they’ve felt from aggressive liberals.

    1. True Will. My belief was always that a significant number of people wouldn’t admit to a pollster that they were voting for Trump, but in the privacy of the voting booth, they pulled that lever.

    2. I know about 11 people personally, including myself, who voted Libertarian. I understand why my friends voted for Trump who did. I know zero who voted for him, because they hate women. I know two who were actually excited to vote for Trump, but not because of what he stands for or because of his character. And the rest voted for him, because the Supreme Court Seat was part of the package deal. These friends would not have probably admitted to a pollster that they were
      “supporting” Trump.

      1. I completely agree with you there. I’d say most I know who voted for Trump would have preferred voting for another republican candidate who was more Libertarian, but wanted to do what they could to stop the socialist direction.

  5. So true! I am beginning to think that journalism is essentially dead. Everything anymore seems to be editorial and opinion shaped around sparingly few facts. I think what drives me mad the most are the “stories” that are about something that happened on Twitter…some celebrity said this, some average Jane said that, the reaction of Twitter was this…as if Twitter reflects a true cross section of America. It seems like lazy journalism….journalists that don’t want to do anything besides sit at their computer.

    And social media has become a cess pool of biased “reporting”, opinion blogs, and outright misleading click bait or flat out fake news stories. It’s a lot easier to “debunk” that beautiful picture of the moonrise reflecting on a calm lake miraculously doing so in front of the cloud cover than it is to “debunk” overly biased news and opinion pieces. Remember when we use to share the inane details of our daily routines on social media? Those seem like the good ol’ days now…

    Now that my mini rant is over, I do appreciate the suggestions for what we should do. I am definitely a natural skeptic!

    1. Good for you Jason. You’re exactly right about opinions in media, and my frustration is that most media sources don’t indicate which one you’re getting in a report – facts or opinions.

  6. Brilliant post. I’m challenged by #5 though. When I see family or friends share their political views on facebook my policy – whether or not I agree with their view – is to ‘scroll on by’. But maybe there’s a way to ‘call out’ false info without embarrassing people, burning bridges or making yourself look bad?

    1. Lindsay, if you go to the upper right corner of the FB post and hover, an arrow will appear, click on the arrow and you have several choices. The first and easiest is to hide the post. That way others who view your feed will no longer see that inaccurate, or inflammatory, or unsubstantiated post. I have done that to a number of posts — actually more after the election than before.

  7. Good article. And yes, my TV almost fell off the cabinet because the election reporting was so lopsided. However, I do believe that competition is only one factor here. We must also recognize that certain groups, or individuals (i.e. G. Soros), have a tremendous influence, pushing (financing?) a particular agenda (globalism?). The power of money should not be overlooked. Rumour has it that people are paid to start or fuel anti Trump riots. To find out if this is actually true is only a first step. Fearlessly and loudly proclaiming the truth is what is needed from those who are true journalists!

  8. #2 is where I was at for years — watch CNN, BBC & al Jaseerah as the multiple sources.

    However, I think entirely blaming the media may be somewhat unfair. There are substantive differences showing as fault lines, maybe not as deep or wide as the Brexit ones. On both sides of the Atlantic the church is now divided — I would argue almost like never before. Calls for unity and healing merely belittle those differences. The need for unity and healing is however undisputed. But it’s not about understanding; it is about different perceptions of good and evil, of light and dark.

    I’m not hopeful for the way ahead. The Brexit vote was approx 5 months ago and the pain, stress and division is as bad, if not worse, than at the start. It’s possible the USA is also in for a long period of unreconcilable division.

  9. So true. I worry about the ‘Buzzfeed generation’ who get their news from either Buzzfeed or Reddit and believe that progressive ideas are basically the new morality. In a world where you can mute anything you don’t like, how can you develop critical thinking? It’s so important (esp as a teen and a student) to be exposed to views from the other side of the fence. That’s how you learn to defend what you believe, and not just blindly accept whatever is shovelled into your mind.

  10. Spot on as usual, Mr. Cooke! The MSM is inherently leftist and biased. As much as that bothers me, I could accept that–without need for a safe space or comfort therapy–if they didn’t also act so intellectually superior and claim to be objective. They are truly and willfully blind. They (the collective media) are supposed to serve as the Fourth Estate, functioning as an extra-governmental check (and balance) on the system. They, of course, no longer do this, having abdicated the role 40-plus years ago. I believe this stems from the solid investigative journalism practiced by Woodward and Bernstein in exposing Watergate. The work was good, but through the process the MSM a) got drunk on the success, and b) realized that they could be used as a weapon to attack those elements of America and the political system they abhor–in other words, anything or anyone conservative in nature. You’re absolutely correct, Phil, in saying that we should all check out and research for truth in what we hear and read in ANY form of news media (ironically, a basic tenet of J-school: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”). In the process, one will invariably begin to identify those outlets and sources who generally get the story/subject right and the need for less–but not NO–vetting and research will become apparent.

  11. These are all good. Sadly, fewer people think logically. What’s even more astounding is how many in the media are still pointing the finger at others, rather than looking inward. They have lost credibility. They have protected the corrupt. They have been hypocritical (as seen in your linked video), and yet, they continue to play identity politics. Just give us the facts. People are craving truth. Until the media gets real with themselves, they will continue to lose.

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