A darn-smart educator I know recently commented to me about the media. He said, the media sources he reads and listens to are “not reporting negatively or demonizing the other side.” For a moment, I thought he was pulling my leg. Then I asked who is sources were . . . and I realized that even smart folks don’t always recognize the subtle influence of the media.
It reminds me of the NYT video by Daniele Anastasion called The Price of Certainty which featured social psychologist Arie Kruglanski. In the short video, Kruglanski points out that in times of fear or anxiety . . . our need for closure increases, so we’re quicker to make judgements—sometimes discounting facts. We become certain—often without being correct. For many in the US, this is a time of fear and anxiety. This is known, amplified by, and capitalized upon through a myriad of agencies, including the news media.
Each media outlet brings bias—intentional or unintentional, systemic or extrinsic—to their reporting. Careful analysis of the language and visuals makes it apparent to those who take the time to look. Media sources brand and stereotype large groups of people constantly. Reuters, for example, recently ran with this headline: “How Republicans are using immigration to scare voters to the polls.” Focusing only on the language in the headline, it’s easy to see that a group of people [Republicans] are being connected with a negative behavior [scaring]. While aspects of this might be true, reasonable questions might include: are all Republicans doing this, or just seven. Are there any Democrats, Libertarians, Green Party members or others also doing this? It’s clear that the headline includes just one group and assigns that group a negative behavior.
It’s just a a headline, though, right? Yes, but recent studies by the Media Insight Project and the Center for Direct Scientific Communication as reported by both Forbes and the Washington Post indicate at least 59% readers get their news by only reading the headlines.. So, while there might be an explanation or correction further down in an article, the headline is the take-away for a majority of readers. It’s subtle, but it has real impact.
Faculty in nearly any discipline can encourage students to investigate applicable subject-focused stories carried in media—and how that language, image, audio, or video may be attempting to do more than just be fair and balanced. We can look at a chart such as Adfontmedia’s Media Bias Chart (below) and argue about whether or not it’s accurate, but even more compelling is having students discover the bias on their own. An interesting and eye-opening project for students to take on is to have them perform an analysis of headlines [or images, or audio, or video] over the course of a week . . . or month . . . or term.
Though a myriad of analysis could be undertaken, it can be done simply, too. In this example, students can select and categorize headlines with very basic criteria:
1. headlines that are non-biased or seen as neutral facts (NB)
2. headlines that are biased Right (BR)
3. headlines that are biased Left (BL).
I recently took a screenshot from the online New York Times from Oct. 10, 2018. The NYT is generally seen as a more neutral and relatively fact-based news source. Of the headlines that appear, I’ve quickly done a quick analysis of the word choice.
Here’s that screenshot:
The headlines on this page, and a brief example of analysis them follows:
On Instagram, 11,696 Examples of How Hate Thrives on Social Media. (NB. While somewhat fear-mongering and not giving equal coverage for how Love Thrives, this headline could be categorized as fact-based and non-politically biased. A read of the article or visuals may give a different insight, based on which groups are highlighted as being hateful, what images are shown, how many times any one political figure is mentioned positively or negatively, etc.)
When Jewish Funeral Customs Collide with a Crime Scene Investigation. (NB)
Aftermath of Killing Bares Jewish Rifts in Israel and America. (NB)
Reeling From Tragedy, Many in Pittsburgh Say Trump Should Not Visit. (BL. “Reeling from Tragedy” is accurate and factual. “Many…Say Trump Should Not Visit.” This may also be accurate, but there are likely “many” who believe Trump should visit. The headline therefore reinforces a negative attitude that “many” have toward a political figure on the right, so I’d suggest this headline is biased to favor the Left. Interestingly enough, approximately 75% of those in Pittsburgh proper itself voted for Clinton, and may truly not want Trump to visit. That could be the “many” being discussed. Yet 50.2% of those in the larger Pittsburgh Metro area voted for Trump, so there could be a “many” that would favor his visit. Perhaps a better, more balanced phrasing would be “Some in Pittsburgh Say Trump Should Not Visit.”
Trump Seeks to End Birthright Citizenship with Executive Order. (NB)
How Trump-Fed Conspiracies About Migrant Caravan Intersect with Deadly Hatred. (BL. Trump has spoken crudely about the migrants. This is factual. Still, this headline connects a specific political figure on the right with “Deadly Hatred.” A more neutral, unbiased headline might read “How Political Discourse Intersects with Deadly Hatred.”)
Trump is Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in Response to Migrants. (NB)
Arguably, of the seven headlines above, five are written neutrally and two appear to have a slight liberal bias.
Of course this example is terribly isolated, and no determination of any media outlet should be based on a random sample of seven headlines on a single day. More thorough research could involve doing this with dozens of media outlets over years or decades, but this simple analysis does give a snapshot of how a single media outlet may be using its position in society to gently skew public opinion.
Then, after managing this kind of simple analysis, a deeper dig into psychological choices with associated images, video, audio, or a text analysis throughout the entire written story could also be undertaken. A considerable part of my MFA in Digital Cinema focused on those specific things. A broad but enlightening overview of those concepts appear in Cinematography & Psychology: How the Camera Decides What We Feel by Nivetha Sivasamy in January of 2017, which gives readers an idea of how certain shots can be selected to influence a viewer. Entire books, college courses, and even degrees are focused on how visual choices can impact viewers psychologically. That means entire campaigns, careers, and industries know that using certain words or visuals will influence readers and viewers. So why do we believe the media that we believe? I guess that’s the Price of Certainty.
So, for those of us in education, let’s help our students become both certain and correct by challenging them to critically evaluate the psychological impact of words (and images and video and audio) in every news story, media outlet, classroom, and discipline. It will lead to a more intelligent generation. I’m certain of it.