As a child, I was fascinated by the daily ritual of my grandfather sifting through six different newspapers that arrived at our doorstep each day, meticulously highlighting and clipping out articles to save for later. At the end of each week, he would bring those cut outs to me and ask me to write all about the different approaches, the event that occurred, the writing style and the meaning of any new words if I found any. To him, staying informed meant gathering a well-rounded perspective of any given event and learning as much from it as possible.
So when I say that I have witnessed the seismic shift in the way we consume media, from the traditional outlets of newspapers and radio broadcasts to the internet and social media, I mean it. Not to say that it wasn’t justified, by the way. These traditional media outlets were long expected to report the facts and provide unbiased coverage of events. They were assigned to hold public figures accountable. We expected them to act as a watchdog against political corruption. Somewhere along the way, they stopped doing that.
I saw journalism change from a source of objective reporting to a means for partisan agendas and sensationalist news. With the advent of the internet and social media, we began having access to news from all around the globe at the touch of a button. As great as that may sound, this democratization of information has come with a new set of challenges.
Seismic Shift: How has the democratization of information changed the way we consume media? What are the challenges posed by modern media platforms, and how can we overcome them? How have the core values of newspapers shifted since their inception in ancient Rome?
One of the most formidable challenges we confront in today's fast-paced world is the relentless deluge of information that hits us each day. We are ceaselessly bombarded with a kaleidoscope of news on our phones, in our cars, and even while idling in a doctor’s waiting room. It is virtually impossible to stay on par with every piece of information, let alone discern which sources are credible, which are not, and what is genuine news versus deceitful fabrication. The ease with which false information and propaganda can be disseminated has only exacerbated this issue. The quandary of fake news and misinformation is especially common in the realm of politics, where it can yield a dramatic influence on public opinion and policy decisions.
An article I came across delved into the worrisome manipulation of information, which is occurring with alarming frequency and often with the objective of swaying elections or molding public opinion on contemporary issues. One particularly disconcerting facet of this phenomenon is the rise of “deepfakes.” These sophisticated and difficult-to-detect fabrications possess a colossal potential for “deceiving viewers and propagating false information, particularly within the political arena.” This has sparked a wave of concerns about the integrity of elections and the role of the media in shaping public opinion.
It’s ironic because the creation of the first newspaper was a response to the need to disseminate news and information to the general public. Dubbed "Acta Diurna," this groundbreaking publication was founded in ancient Rome in 59 BC. I shared an image below of what it looked like. But the birth of the first newspaper was driven by an aspiration to inform and enlighten the public, to offer a forum for discussion and debate, and to hold those in power accountable. But as the years went by, these once-cherished values stopped serving as the cornerstone of modern newspapers' role in society.
There are several newspaper organizations that find themselves under the control of influential corporate magnates. The impact of these entities on the portrayal of events through their publications is undeniably substantial. When these industry giants own such newspaper companies, there is an inevitable rise in the risk of personal or business interests seeping into the content of their newspapers. For example, a wealthy individual with political connections may be able to use their newspaper to promote their preferred political agenda.
A prime example that springs to my mind is the newspaper empire commandeered by its proprietor, William Randolph Hearst, during the Spanish-American War to promote a specific political agenda. Hearst, who owned an extensive collection of newspapers, including the New York Journal, was a fervent advocate for American intervention in the conflict between Spain and Cuba in the late 1890s. Here’s an example of one of the articles that fuelled said outrage:
Hearst's newspapers were notorious for their sensational headlines and their penchant for yellow journalism—a reporting style characterized by an emphasis on exaggeration to captivate readers. You can clearly see what I mean for yourselves above. Hearst employed his newspapers as instruments to disseminate a pro-war sentiment, publishing exaggerated stories about Spanish atrocities in Cuba and accusing the Spanish government of orchestrating the sinking of the American battleship Maine.
Historians widely believe that Hearst's newspapers played a pivotal role in influencing public opinion and propelling the United States toward an armed conflict with Spain. Hearst himself was once quoted as saying,
"You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
Unbelievable. An outlet once designed to promote transparency and accountability in government has metamorphosed into a veritable Facebook wall that advances a particular agenda, albeit on a vastly grander scale.
Sensationalism and Agenda-Driven Media: What are some examples of media shaping public opinion, both in the past and the present? What are some reliable and objective news sources?
It’s no secret that the media has the power to shape public opinion and pervades our daily lives. From news coverage and social media trends to advertising, a plethora of examples showcase the impact the media has on molding our thoughts and emotions regarding specific issues or events.
This phenomenon is far from new. Even the ancient Roman Empire acknowledged the media's influence over the masses. They strategically employed public spectacles, such as gladiator fights and chariot races, to captivate and entertain the people while disseminating political propaganda via various channels, including artwork and public speeches. Today, the media continues to sculpt public opinion in a strikingly similar manner. Social media played a massive role in the 2016 US Presidential election, with fabricated stories and memes circulating, ultimately shaping people's perceptions of the candidates and the critical issues at stake.
A memorable example from that time is the "Never Trump'' movement, which sought to deter voters from supporting Republican candidate Donald Trump. One of the tactics that was employed by the Never Trump movement involved crafting and disseminating memes and false stories on social media platforms.
An example of the type of memes that were created to influence public opinion is shared above. I'm not here to refute their premise or delve into the history behind their creation; all I have to say is that the level of exaggeration is the common theme in all of these forms of media. Even more amusing is when an election approaches, a politician's proverbial closet of skeletons comes tumbling out. The worst part about it is the exaggerated manner in which the media tells the story.
While the media was initially designed to report the events that were occurring, in recent years, it has shifted its focus towards advocating for specific agendas, often at the expense of objective reporting. One recent example is the Ohio train derailment from February, which garnered minimal coverage in mainstream media despite its environmental and safety repercussions.
It is worth noting that there are many instances of media bias and selective reporting. Readers need to evaluate their sources critically and seek out reliable, fact-based reporting from selected sources. Yes, I know this requires a lot of effort on the part of the reader, but it is so vital for maintaining an informed and engaged citizenry.
The article above is an example of a news story that failed to receive widespread coverage in mainstream media, despite its significance. It talks about the workers that were involved in the Ohio train derailment, the resulting oil leakage, and how they were not provided adequate protection or compensation for exposure to hazardous materials.
The article raises a critical question regarding worker safety and corporate accountability, but the reason this story didn't garner more media attention remains unclear…allow me to speculate, a possibility is that it did not align with the interests of the media's corporate owners.
I know that I have gone on forever about all the outlets that are promoting agendas, spewing subjective opinions and misleading the public through shiny headings. So I thought of creating a short list of independent and alternative news sources that offer unique perspectives or highlight issues that don't receive extensive coverage. Some of those notable sources include:
- The Intercept: An journalism website that covers topics such as national security, politics, and social justice.
- ProPublica: An investigative journalism in the public interest, covering topics such as government and corporate accountability, criminal justice, and healthcare.
- Mother Jones: A magazine and online news outlet that covers politics, social justice, and environmental issues.
- The Real News Network: An organization that produces in-depth reporting on issues such as economic inequality, climate change, and global politics.
Responsible and Ethical Journalism: How did the Killian Documents controversy highlight the issue of media bias and misinformation? What is the importance of due diligence and ethical journalism in the context of a democratic society?
One of the most pressing issues confronting the media today is the prevalence of bias and misinformation. Numerous news outlets have succumbed to increasing polarization and the influence of political agendas. This has led to the dissemination of misleading information and slanted reporting, significantly affecting public opinion and political discourse.
There is one particular incident I'd like to discuss. How many of you have heard of Dan Rather? He was the esteemed anchor and managing editor of "CBS Evening News" and "60 Minutes II" when the story involving the Killian Documents was aired. Rather had a long and distinguished career in journalism, covering major events such as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Watergate scandal. He was renowned for his hard-hitting reporting and his fearless approach to confronting powerful institutions and individuals - until the Killian Documents began to raise questions about his approach to reporting.
The Killian Documents were a collection of memos penned by Bush's former National Guard commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. CBS News used these documents in a story about President George W. Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War. Airing on "60 Minutes II" just before the 2004 presidential election, the story insinuated that Bush had received preferential treatment and failed to fulfill his military obligations. You can watch the segment here.
Shortly after the story's broadcast, the authenticity of the memos were called into question. You can take a look for the inconsistencies down below:
Observers detected irregularities in the typeface and formatting, suggesting that the documents had been forged. CBS initially defended the story, leading other news sources to share it. But soon after, some evidence came to light that contradicted the authenticity of the documents mounted. CBS ultimately retracted the story and apologized for its reporting errors.
The controversy surrounding the Killian Documents was significant, as it occurred shortly before the 2004 presidential election and was perceived by many as an attempt to sway the election's outcome. The story fed into existing concerns about Bush's military record and cast doubt on his credibility and fitness for office. Republicans were more inclined than Democrats to believe CBS had intentionally broadcasted the story to tarnish Bush's image in the eyes of the American public. A staggering 63% of Republicans felt that CBS had reported the story to make the president appear unfavorable. While the story's exact impact on the election is difficult to ascertain, it is evident that the controversy over the Killian Documents marked a critical moment in the history of media bias and political influence, emphasizing the significance of responsible and ethical journalism in a democratic society.
I visited one of Rather's Twitter posts (shared above) and observed that the comments beneath it still reference the Killian Documents incident.
It is a journalist's responsibility to exercise due diligence before publishing any story, examining potential gaps to ensure they are addressed and providing the general public with comprehensive background knowledge. Pushing out stories with clickbait taglines and exaggerations are tactics that should be left in the past.
Distortion of reality: How does media bias affect the presentation of various issues and events in society? What is the importance of acknowledging and challenging these biases in reporting?
It is worth noting that media bias transcends any single political ideology. Both liberal and conservative media outlets are guilty of promoting a narrow agenda or failing to provide a comprehensive perspective on the issues at hand. But it is also important to note that the bias towards liberal motives and timelines is a particularly prevalent issue in many media outlets today.
For example, some media sources prioritize coverage of issues like climate change or social justice during times of significant economic policy shifts or national security concerns. I am not arguing the significance of both issues, they are both undeniably important but there is an excessive focus on one more than the other and that can create a skewed perception of the world and lead to a failure to address the full spectrum of challenges facing society.
Fox News, one of the most popular and influential news outlets in the United States, boasts a large and devoted audience that depends on the network for information validation and analysis. The network's ideological leanings also fuel divisiveness, with many accusing it of promoting a partisan agenda and contributing to the erosion of trust in journalism as a whole.
The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.
The quote perfectly highlights the inherent bias that is found in both history and journalism. It emphasizes the danger of allowing lies and biased narratives to become a part of our collective understanding of the past and present. The core principles of journalism were rooted in accuracy, objectivity, and transparency. These principles were the foundation for a media outlet to fulfill its role against wrongdoing.
I understand that complete objectivity is unattainable, as every media outlet, editor or journalist is influenced by their own biases and assumptions. The objective does not have to be to eliminate bias entirely but to acknowledge and confront it while striving for fairness and balance in reporting. In essence, this means reducing extremism in reporting.
The balancing act: What are the dangers of political extremism, and how can they be mitigated? How can media outlets and consumers work together to promote a more inclusive and cooperative society?
Extremism in politics has evolved into a mounting concern, with many individuals becoming increasingly entrenched in their views and unwilling to entertain alternative perspectives. This type of tribalism poses a significant danger, as it incites violence and fractures society.
It is now imperative to balance liberal and conservative views, adopting a more nuanced and moderate standpoint. This approach will help circumvent the perils of extremism, fostering a more inclusive and collaborative society.
The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.
To combat these issues, it is important for media outlets to work towards objectivity and be more balanced in their reporting. This means being aware of their biases and assumptions and actively seeking out diverse opinions and voices. This also means promoting moderation and dialogue rather than extremism and tribalism.
At the same time, it is also the consumer's responsibility to be critical in their consumption of news and opinions. This means being aware of biases that may exist, and seeking out different perspectives to get a bigger picture. It also means being open to alternative viewpoints and willing to engage in constructive dialogue with those who hold different opinions.
In the end, a healthy society depends on a well-informed and engaged citizenry. An important building block for that is a media that is committed to transparency, accuracy, and objectivity, as well as a public that is willing to listen and learn from one another.
“The function of the press is very high. It is almost Holy. It ought to serve as a forum for the people, through which the people may know freely what is going on. To misstate or suppress the news is a breach of trust."
Louis D. Brandeis