It’s not news that the news media is in crisis. In search of higher ratings and broader circulation, media outlets have over time abandoned the primary role of news: to provide people with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, communities, societies and governments.[i] The 2016 election cycle seemed to make it all “more” and worse.
Reliable news and information are inextricably linked to democratic society. It seems incumbent upon us to take action. But what action?
The American Press Institute says, “For democracies to thrive, people need accurate information about the problems of civil society and the debates over how to solve them. That requires an economically sustainable, independent and free press; [one] that is vested in the values of verification and monitoring the powerful, and is dedicated to putting citizens first, ahead of political faction.”[ii]
Unfortunately, economic sustainability now seems at odds with a free and independent press in the United States.
Thirty years ago, 90% of the media in the US was held by 50 different companies.[iii] Since 1996, however, FCC regulations limiting media mergers and cross-ownership have been “relaxing.” Media ownership consolidated within a very few short years. The FCC completely eliminated key rules in 2007. Since then, 90% of all media consumed in the United States has been owned by six companies.[iv] This includes print, television, film, music, video games and related investments. And it includes the internet. In other words, these six companies control 90% of what Americans see and hear.
Media properties have actually been good investments. But corporate owners have attempted to extract wealth by cutting news staff, squeezing salaries and controlling content. This magnifies the problems of media consolidation. Where there are no editors, collaboration and fact-checking suffer. Where there are no journalists assigned to breaking news or local stories, content is reduced to what the wire services provide. At that point, everyone is getting the same information from the same sources, slanted to match viewpoints identified by market research and data mining.
Amplify that in a social media environment with few restraints. The implications are grim.
To fully grasp what is going on in media today and do something about it, we must go beyond news about the news. We must bring together what we know from two separate bodies of knowledge: mass media and human psychology.
What we see and read every day matters. The more we are exposed to words, images or ideas, the easier it is for related words, ideas and – ultimately – behaviors to be evoked. Social psychologist Daniel Kahneman says this is because our minds are “associative machines.” Much of this associative processing happens very quickly in our brains, without our conscious awareness.
The deliberate manipulation of public consciousness grew rapidly just about 100 years ago – after a man named Edward Bernays noticed how effective propaganda had been in World War I and rebranded it as “public relations.”
A nephew of Sigmund Freud’s, Bernays was the first person to systematically use the discoveries of psychology and the “unconscious” to mold the behavior of the public. He called it “the engineering of consent.”[v] One of Bernays’ first clients was the American Tobacco Company. He famously hired rich debutants to march in the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City with cigarettes hidden in their garters. At an intersection where Bernays had stationed photographers, these women flipped open their skirts, took out their “freedom torches” and lit up. You know the story from there.
In the last few decades, with technology and neuroscience, psychologists have made breakthroughs in measuring the mechanisms of our “associative machinery.” This is what makes us so susceptible to commercial programming and to errors in thinking, or cognitive bias. In the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of research into this type of bias. Consultant Howard Ross found over 1,000 studies of cognitive bias in a 10-year period. One recent “cheat sheet” of implicit biases named 175 types, but missed some of the most well-known. There are so many ways our fast-thinking brains can lead us astray that no one seems to get them all.
Our biases can be manipulated by things like repetition and bold font or quality paper; by familiarity, optimism and stereotypes. They can be manipulated by the frequency or unusualness of events, by background music and even weather.
And of course, our biases can be manipulated by what we already believe.
You can see that these things have nothing to do with whether information is true, or useful. But, Kahneman says, “anything that makes it easier for the associative machine to run smoothly will also bias beliefs.”
This is what Robert Mercer[vi], Cambridge Analytica[vii], Sinclair Broadcast Group[viii] and others like them use on us with our social media accounts and their news outlets. This is why we must take action. Now. Every day.
Secret Weapons for News Consumers
When we connect the dots between brain science and mass media, we can see how the two are used together to distract, distress, influence and indoctrinate. By understanding key principles in both psychology and journalism, we become better at navigating today’s media environment and using it for good.
So here are the things: The more we know about errors in thinking, the more we can choose to correct them and take the antidotes: mindfulness, personal reflection and critical thought. The more we know about the media oligopoly, the more we can choose consciously what we watch, buy and invite into our brains. We cannot counter cognitive bias if we don’t notice it. And little things can make a big difference.
- Slow down. Take time to think critically.
- Be aware of your triggers. Step back, reflect and research before responding.
- Challenge your own assumptions. Ask questions.
- Know your stuff. Get information from multiple, reputable and independent sources.
- Build media literacy skills. Learn how to decode messages and assess their impacts.[ix]
- Act like a journalist. Fact-check and don’t share it if you can’t vouch for it.[x]
- Take a break. Turn off the machines.
- Develop comfort with complexity. Truth can be subtle. Democracy is hard.
When Fact-Checking Alone Does Not Work
- Discuss these topics openly with friends and colleagues. Share information and tools for being a responsible news consumer.
- Join organizations that work on responsible journalism, holding media accountable and a free and open internet.
- Support alternate news sources that are transparent about their ownership, funding, mission and motives.
- Publicly call on news organizations to uphold journalism’s purpose and ethics, and to encourage independence and diversity of opinion.
- When editorials present false equivalencies or inaccuracies, call for the newsroom side of that outlet to report on falsehoods with journalistic investigation and fact.
- Register public complaints when racist or other propaganda statements by public figures are “given a pass” or reported as fact.
- Write to your elected representatives. Support net neutrality and specific regulatory practices to break up the “big six” and to restore integrity and equity to media ownership policies.
Jody Alyn specializes in equity and inclusion strategies. She works with companies and communities that want to bridge gaps, solve complex problems and seriously improve results. She also writes, presents and gives interviews on topics like implicit bias, incivility, and poisonous politics at work. In 2018-19, she partnered with Pikes Peak Women, Citizens Project and the Pikes Peak Library District to create the “Fact and Fiction in Media” program series in Colorado Springs.
[i]https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/journalism-essentials/what-is-journalism/purpose-journalism/. Accessed 11-28-18.[ii]https://www.americanpressinstitute.org/about/about-us/?utm_content=nav. Accessed 11-28-18.
[iii]https://www.morriscreative.com/6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america/. Accessed 11-28-18.
[iv]https://www.webpagefx.com/data/the-6-companies-that-own-almost-all-media/. Accessed 11-28-18.
[v]https://www.amazon.com/Engineering-Consent-Edward-L-Bernays/dp/B0007DOM5E. Accessed 01-07-19.
[vi]https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/26/robert-mercer-breitbart-war-on-media-steve-bannon-donald-trump-nigel-farage. Accessed 01-08-19.
[vii] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win. Accessed 01-10-19.[viii]https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/02/business/media/sinclair-news-anchors-script.html. Accessed 01-07-19.
[ix]https://medialiteracynow.org/what-is-media-literacy/. Accessed 01-07-19.
[x]Adapted from “Building Resistance to Brain Bugs” presentation by Dr. Sam Ebersole, Colo Springs, 08-30-18. Also, see 10 Best Sites, for example.
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