“The media is just making things worse…”

I’ve seen those words on so many Facebook threads posted by people disgusted by the recent civil unrest. Generally, news platforms are convenient scapegoats for those who don’t want to confront and address the underlying problems that instigate such turmoil.

The idiom “shooting the messenger” dates back to the era when messages were delivered by human emissaries, diplomatic envoys or couriers. Although an unwritten code of conduct in war called for a commanding officer to send them back unharmed, these “bearers of bad news” occasionally became the ones he took his anger out on. The modern use of the phrase is when there is an emotional response to unwanted news or a perception of bias toward a favored cause, person, organization, etc.

Sometimes we just grow tired of hearing about something that’s happening in the world and prefer staying in denial rather than hearing and reading daily reminders of these disturbing things -- things like popular resistance of racist artifacts or diseases we’d rather stick our heads in the sand and pretend don’t exist. In such instances, we should resist turning a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow human beings and only seeking out information that lends credibility to our predisposed prejudices.

While ignorance may be bliss, self-delusion rarely serves us well. Especially when there’s a highly-contagious and potentially deadly virus spreading like wildfire with no clear idea of when this national nightmare will end.

While “the media” is a term that most Americans use, few can easily define it. In a January 2017 article in The Atlantic, writer James Hamblin addressed this by calling modern journalism “a profession predicated on conveying truth. Journalists’ currency is credibility. To quibble with a particular journalist’s motives is to quibble with their identity: Are they journalists? Or entertainers, ideologues, or advocates?”

It’s an important distinction. Are freelance bloggers unaffiliated with a large, established news organization considered part of “the media”? And if so, do they follow the same ethical standards that are supposed to be the expectation of traditional news and TV reporters? Do they make sure they “got it right” before hitting the share button?

Bloggers were a key part of Russian interference activities in the 2016 U.S. elections. They were used to amplify political and social discord in the USA through hacking, internet-trolling and provoking of extremist political groups. These platforms fueled the spread of fabricated news and disinformation created by propagandists/trolls working around the clock to undermine faith in the U.S. government and fuel political protest. Their “clickbait” and hyperpartisan memes were wildly successful in causing shares, reactions and comments on Facebook and Instagram. Truth didn’t matter – only the way they made you feel.

It doesn’t take long browsing your newsfeed to recognize that they succeeded in distorting Americans’ perceptions of reality and are again meddling. Moscow is exploiting our open, democratic society, the technology that pervades every sphere of our lives and our aversion to war casualties to attack us on virtual battlefields.

President Trump is not a big fan of “the media” and admitted to veteran journalist Lesley Stahl of the CBS program “60 Minutes” that he bashes the press to “demean” and “discredit” reporters so that the public will not believe “negative stories” about him. Pretty smart. If you demonize the press and go after them relentlessly as the “enemy of the state”, you circumvent their ability to inform the public and hold public officials accountable. “Reality” becomes whatever you tell your supporters to believe it is. Isn’t it funny how news stories that flatter him never get dismissed as “fake news”?

I don’t care who you vote for. Journalists and elected officials are naturally adversarial. Whoever runs things, a free press is absolutely vital to protecting our Constitution, separation of powers and rule of law.

I’m not denying that bias in news reporting happens, sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally in hyper-partisan outlets. If I ever report something that isn’t objectively true, please tell me so we can run a correction and set the public record straight. Getting it right and keeping it fair matters.

In the early 19th century, newspapers were often nakedly partisan, since many of them were funded by political parties. A wall of separation between news and opinion is meant to prevent newspapers from representing only a particular party or ideology.

If you tune to Fox News and MSNBC, you’ll think you’re viewing news from different planets. I encourage anyone reading this to inform yourself by reading/viewing reportage from a wide range of sources. With print publications, it’s easier to distinguish between straightforward objective reporting that avoids editorializing or attempting to tell readers or viewers what to think – “just the facts” presented in a way that tells a complete story, both sides, and lets you make up your own mind – versus an opinion page like the one you’re reading right now.

News aims to achieve balance, to not show favor, delivering information in a non-partisan way without a political agenda. Opinion, on the other hand, sets out to make a specific case, to entertain or persuade. It’s where voices are heard, including your letters to the editor.

Broadcast news media are a powerful influence considering that 15 percent of Alabamians are functionally illiterate, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. Many others can read just fine, but they lack media literacy, i.e., an ability to sense whether the information presented skews to the left, right or the extremes of either. On TV news networks like CNN or Fox, opinions often get blurred in there with dispassionately delivering the news. It gets even fuzzier as the TV stations feel financial pressure to make news programming more entertaining and sensationalize stories to get higher ratings so they can charge more for advertising.

Then there’s social media. I pity someone if they primarily learn about what’s happening in their city and around the world from their Facebook news feed. Many will just skim a headline and maybe the first paragraph before flying off the handle upset about something. And the Russians are more than happy to tell you what you want to hear, even if it’s a lie or exaggeration crafted to make you want to go strangle your neighbor. They win when you’re left without a clear sense of what’s real and who you can trust.

A website called MediaBiasChart.com suggests the most neutral and accurate outlets are the Associated Press, C-Span, Time, BBC, USA Today, PBS, NBC, CBS News and ABC News. They also show on an infographic whose coverage routinely contains misleading or inaccurate/fabricated information or extreme/unfair interpretations and nonsense damaging to public discourse.

Hundreds of newspapers, magazines, broadcast network programs, blogs and social media posts are fighting for your attention. Some are fighting for your trust, others aiming to mislead you. It’s easy to sense a feeling of distrust and paranoia with readers almost forced to pick a side. That’s detrimental to free thinking. Ultimately, the words of “the media” should help inform you so you can reach your own conclusions.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.


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