How the Dirty Media Manipulates You! Hate Up!

Reverend Francis RitchieMiscellany

Angst against the media is at an all-time high. Hate spreads and internet warriors rise up and spit their venom in indignation at a group they see as corrupt, manipulative, and biased. Mainstream media is akin to Satan in the eyes of many. A President-elect is the standard bearer of the rage fueled charge against this beast.

I was originally going to call this post ‘In Defense of the Media’ (because I don’t actually line up with the headline I chose and have chosen to use some of my life to support those who work in the industry) but to make my point in this day and age I knew that the headline and the opening paragraph that Facebook would pick up on when the story is linked to would need to be more salacious than that. It needed to bait your click. Watching the analytics for this post will tell me if I am right or not – so I’m watching with interest. I’m sure some of you might be feeling ripped off now that it’s clear the post won’t completely line up with the headline.

Right now, trust in media outlets seems to have bottomed out. The election of Donald Trump to the office of POTUS has brought the problem to a head. The problem is complex. You see, it involves some media pretending they’re not media as they slam other media as being the media, while painting that media as dirty and corrupt. Get it?

To put it another way – where are you hearing that the media is corrupt and biased? Most probably from stories you’ve clicked on. It’s most likely that the story you clicked on was shared by someone on Facebook. If you’re reading it in a story on the internet, that story is a piece of media editorial. It’s just coming from a media writer or outlet that is painting the picture that they’re not ‘media.’ There are radio and television hosts who talk about the mainstream media as if they’re not part of it as well.

Let’s be clear, ‘the media’ is a big and diverse industry full of people and outlets of various views that span the globe and its diversity of cultures, nationalities, political views and worldviews. It includes everything from the New York Times, to CNN, to Fox, to Breitbart, to the Vatican News, to the New Zealand Herald and so on…. and all the journalists, editors etc within them. Some have a clear and open bias, some have a bias that isn’t so clear, and some work hard to operate with no bias. To paint them as a kind of Borg mind that thinks in sync is ridiculous.

‘The media’ even includes these guys who clearly understand the psychology of the news consumer well. What they’ve cottoned on to is the fact that our lizard brain (for want of a better phrase) is larger than we like to think and that we’re, for the most part, given to confirmation bias. We like reading articles that agree with our preconceived ideas and because of our lizard brain, the more angsty and salacious those articles, the better. If we don’t like something we like to hear how really really bad (evil) it is. If we love something we like to hear that love justified by hearing how stupidly good it is. The more salacious it is, the more likely we are to click. The propensity for the pile-on and intense righteous faux outrage that Twitter seems to be given to is a symptom of this way of being.

The guys in the article that I linked to have discovered that and are running at it with no constraints – feeding the confirmation bias of Trump loving, anit-left, anti-media pundits. In the article they recognised that they could increase their income further by starting a leftie website doing exactly the same thing. In politics neither side is more righteous than the other in that regard. Funnily enough, politically, some of my leftie friends think the media is biased to the right – in their view the media is a right-wing Borg mind. I also have friends who sit on the political right who think the media is a Borg mind of the left.

The numbers flocking to such ‘news’ sites as the one in the story I linked to are significant. Us consumers are feeding such junk that simply exists to play us so they can make some $$$. They’re playing on the worst of who we are to get clicks. Traditional media outlets are looking on and in a competitive market requiring advertising dollars to produce a return for shareholders, what is the most logical response?

Every week in my work as a chaplain I get to sit down with people who work in the media¬† – everyone from editors to journalists, to people clicking buttons in television news control rooms. I consider it to be a real privilege. Do they recognise that in the big and diverse world of mainstream media there are some dodgy practices that go on? Yes. But for the most part they’re good people committed to getting across good information, and nobody is feeling the lament of the current situation more than they are.

Editors feel under pressure to create click-bait headlines so that they can compete in the current market. Journalists feel pressured to pump out lots of stories with little resources and they feel a need to add bits of controversy and urgency into their stories to help get traction. I have not sat down with one person yet where I felt that their integrity was in question. I have no doubt questionable mainstream media people are out there, but I am yet to meet them. I enjoy the people I spend my time with. I applaud the work that they do and I’m doing my utmost to play some small part in supporting them and their ongoing well-being in a tough industry.

I’ve sat with those who get to track the statistics on mainstream media websites and because of that, I feel confident in saying that we, the news consumers are most of the problem. But I don’t need those statistics to tell me that. As an avid social media user (mostly Facebook) I can see the problem in my social media feeds. We share stories with the most attention grabbing headlines. We share junk news that is often high in toxic opinion. Ironically we also have a penchant for sharing stories we hate and want to criticise. When the latter happens we all click on the story to see what it is that we need to hate, we add our comments of rage to the feed of the person who shared it and then we share it to get on the rage bandwagon. We do it while those who watch the stats see the hits for those stories go up. Those are the stats that advertisers look at when they decide which media outlets to spend their money with. Can you see the problem? The result is that stories and headlines adjust over time to suit what it is that we consume.

Let’s stop bagging on ‘the media’ and pretending that somehow we’re not one of the biggest parts of a complex modern information problem.

If we want to be part of the solution to the problem of click-bait and controversy fueled media I propose a diet that will take as much self control as when I smell KFC and choose to walk past it. If you see a story you don’t like, don’t share it with self-righteous outrage – just don’t share it. Heck, resist even clicking on it yourself. Also, take the time to question stories that amount to the worst kind of confirmation bias when it comes to our own leanings. If we run through that critique and we’re still comfortable that the story is solid rather than simply playing us to get clicks, by all means, share it. Best of all, when a truly good story arises that has solid information, or demonstrates values that we want to uphold, share the living daylights out of that.

Let’s be part of shaping better news by watching what we eat.