Published on November 11th, 2016 | by Zachary Shahan0
What Is The Role Of The Media?
November 11th, 2016 by Zachary Shahan
(Note: This article is genuinely about the media — not the US presidential election. Part of it, of course, is based on my understanding of the world, politicians and political parties, and some politics-related facts. So, if you are pro-Trump or Republican, I hope you can get past a few partisan statements here in order to get through the whole article, since the points of it all are non-partisan and I think very important.)
Aside from pure party affiliation (we could perhaps say tribalism), which put 90% of Republicans for Trump, the biggest factor from exit polls that gave Trump the advantage was people saying that they picked Trump because he could “bring needed change.”
This may seem simple and unimportant — Trump was an anti-establishment candidate and Clinton was the ultimate insider; Clinton by far won the “has the right experience” vote. However, this is a much deeper issue in our society and politics, and I think it’s heavily on the shoulders of the media. It’s definitely not the only factor on the shoulders of the media, as I’ll discuss, but it’s an interesting one to start with.
See many useful charts on the 2016 presidential election on The Washington Post.
Negativity Sells, But It Also Influences
The first thing to highlight is that Obama also won on a campaign of “change.” In fact, it is very rare for a political party to retain the presidency for three terms. This surely comes down to many factors, including perhaps: if normal people haven’t become millionaires yet, they feel like they haven’t been offered the right circumstances (after all, it is the right of Americans to become rich and famous); “moderates” pride themselves on not belonging 100% to one party or the other, so perhaps feel compelled to swing back and forth from time to time; people get disillusioned that their previous “change” candidate didn’t turn the country into a magical kingdom (all by himself, and in just a handful of years).
However, I think the biggest factor could simply be the media and how it operates. State-run media outlets in places like Russia keep the population fairly happy with their (often oppressive) leaders. This is often despite much worse economic conditions. Why? Because brainwashing works. Using more nuance, let’s remember — humans often aren’t rational actors or actresses, and our opinions on a large variety of factors are based on someone or some people emotionally touching us and convincing us of something. Seldom do we actually look at things from a “first principles” or “get the facts” perspective.
The news media, as you may have noticed, is excessively negative. Shock sells, and negative stories are often the most shocking. To be specific, this shock triggers primal responses in us that first make us read or watch the stories, then pump certain chemicals into our brains, and then make us consume the idea that “danger is out there.”
Fox News fans aren’t just lacking in investigative skills — they are addicted to this chemical reaction. But it isn’t only Fox News that preys on this instinct.
If you haven’t been in a cave for the past couple of decades, you probably know that the media industry has had a hard time transitioning to a paperless, Internet-dominated world. Advertisers don’t pay as much — not nearly as much — as they used to. It’s much harder to attract eyeballs. “Publishing” has been democratized (you can publish whatever you want on Facebook, Twitter, a personal blog, etc.), but that means there’s much more competition for eyeballs and the major media outfits that used to have a near monopoly lose more and more of their dominance and lose more and more of their money.
The result? Follow the money. Prioritize shock over reality. Prioritize negativity over uplift. Race to the bottom of the burning trash can.
The negativity wears on us — those of us who tune in to such media, that is. The world must be getting worse. The economy must be going down the drain. The president must be failing.
Each actual story doesn’t even matter — it’s the aggregate emotional product. I have seen research that a heavily negative comments section makes people think negatively about the main topic of the article — the facts and arguments don’t matter. What do you think the effect of political reporting is when the media is overwhelmingly focused on negative stories? (By the way, be sure that President Trump will try to make drastic changes in the media in order to help his brand as president — no matter what else you say about him, he is a master of branding and knows the importance of the media.)
It’s pretty shocking when you look at the facts of the last 8 years: We were in a deep, horrible economic recession when Obama took office. It was created in large part by deregulation of the financial industry. Yet people want “change” and want to bring us back to the policies (even more extreme ones) that created the collapse? People want to change back toward the thing we changed away from in the first place? People want the political party who most favors deregulation in office? People want the political party in power that stalled the economic recovery when they took over Congress 2 years after Obama took the presidency?
(Note: There is a large portion of the country that hasn’t improved much and is routinely demonized, but the economic forces attacking it are not going away, and Trump’s best bet to help them is the same as what Obama has done. Whether Trump carries on Obama’s work or completely drops the ball on this Republican base is yet to be seen.)
Ah, but the common person doesn’t have the time to look into details. It relies on the media to quickly summarize the take-home points.
The media doesn’t help when it constantly runs with a “false balance” narrative — an illogical narrative that says both sides of an argument have equal weight, even if one is obviously correct and one is not; that says both sides of an argument should get 5 minutes on air, even if 99% of climate scientists say one is correct and it is only the pollution industry’s scientists who disagree; that says Republicans get to call Democrats obstructionists as well and not be challenged even though it is demonstrably clear the GOP is the party of obstructionism; that says lies or incorrect assumptions from guests don’t get corrected since the guests are getting their time and are warranted to their own opinion.
As one former Democratic Senator and sociologist (woohoo for sociologists!) said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Unfortunately, yes, the media acts as though everyone is entitled to their own facts.
By giving too much time to lies, the media is pushing lies. By not correcting obviously incorrect claims, the media is letting much of its consumer base gain a false understanding of the world. By giving airtime to people whose goal is to convince the public smoking is good for your health, more people come to believe that smoking is good for your health. By giving airtime to people who claim poop smells good, more people think poop smells good.
Ironically, the media itself is even a sucker of this “false balance” approach. The incessant claims from the right are that the media is too liberal. But here’s a short representative (but surely not 100% precise) math analogy to show what’s going on: The media weighs in on the side of the left 60% of the time. Oh, yes, it is favoring the left, you say? Let’s finish the point: The left is correct 80% of the time. So, now, who is the media favoring?
It is favoring a distorted reality.
So what does the media do in the face of incessant claims that it has a liberal bias? It run with false balance even more. …
Cleantech & Climate Are Just Two Examples
As someone who has covered cleantech and climate change obsessively for approximately 7 years, I know the facts pretty well, and I think I have a decent understanding of which messages the public is most lacking and which misunderstandings are most harmful to society.
When I see mainstream media stories on the topics, though, it seems clear that most reporters don’t know the industries or technologies they are reporting about. It also becomes clear how heavily “false balance” really does shape the mainstream media approach. It is not uplifting.
When I am interviewed by the mainstream media, I can talk to them for 2 minutes or for 30 minutes, but the result is the same — they run the story they had in mind. They create a story based on what they think will sell, and based on false balance narratives that have dominated the airwaves elsewhere and seem “interesting.”
Much of this again comes down to what I discussed above — budgets are strapped, reporters are spread too thin and asked to do too much, and the result is worse reporting. But the results for society don’t have sympathy to small budgets and poor reporting.
The Media Can Have An Opinion
One of my pet peeves is the perception that the media can’t have an opinion. If my job is to read about cleantech and climate change dozens of hours a week for years and years, I would have to be pretty incapable mentally to not learn enough about the subjects that I had an opinion on many matters related to them.
I am asked to speak at conferences around the world — for investors, for government officials, for cleantech industries, etc. — because of the knowledge I have gained about cleantech. The same is true for many other reporters, in the mainstream media and out of it. Yet, people commonly have the idea that the media shouldn’t have an opinion — or shouldn’t express one — on the topics it has great expertise in.
If you have an opinion based on a lot of research, you should share it. When you don’t have enough information and are speculating, you should admit that. When you are still a novice on a topic, you should rely on the experts and your own critical thinking skills. Being a member of the media shouldn’t mean writing in the third person, pretending you are a robot, and pretending that you know as little about your area of expertise as someone who works in a completely unrelated field and plays video games or squash in his spare time.
What Is The Role Of The Media?
The media’s role is not to put two candidates in front of a camera and make sure they get approximately 50–50 talking time. The media’s role shouldn’t be to shock the public and spread negativity more than positivity. The media’s role shouldn’t be to increase human weaknesses, misunderstanding, and depression (even if that does result in more drug abuse stories for the media to cover).
I strongly believe that the media’s role should be to bring more correct and important information to the public. Democracy relies on 1) correct and important information being spread far and wide, and 2) civic engagement.
I strongly believe the media should prioritize making society better.
These days, the media needs to be entertaining — or at least interesting — to have much influence. Fox News uses one strategy for that, John Oliver another. CleanTechnica‘s strategy could use a lot of work — I’m trying. Really, I am.
Overall, though, media is at the backbone of democracy. No, it is a core part of the brain of democracy. Poorly functioning media = poorly functioning democracy. I would say that we definitely have a poorly function media industry and poorly functioning democracy right now.
CleanTechnica relies on advertising — and we try hard to make sure sponsors don’t indirectly (and certainly not directly) create bias in our work — but most of our advertising is delivered by Google in a way that we don’t actually know who is advertising. That is not how major media pays the bills. The bigger a media outlet is, the more it relies on direct sponsors, generally speaking. (By the way, if you know any companies that want to become direct sponsors on CleanTechnica, send them our way!) There’s a lot of room then for the networks to have their work indirectly affected by who pays the bills. I think the media industry needs to move away from this form of funding, but the problem is figuring out where it should move. Bill Maher and President Obama discussed this recently and didn’t seem to have any strong solutions despite being very concerned about the topic.
I would like to have much more of CleanTechnica‘s revenue come directly from our readers. I think it would help us to both focus on what is useful more and bring in more revenue to do the work you want us to do. Stay tuned for more, but if you want to send some cash now, feel free to send some via PayPal to email@example.com (use the note “CleanTechnica”). Send $50 or more and we’ll give you a choice of gifts that we can send your way. 🙂
Messaging #Fail — Not The Media’s Fault
Back to the US presidential election, yes, I am putting the blame for electing Trump in large part on the media. Obviously, the Republican Party also had a hand in it, including many leaders in the party who are terrified about having Trump as president. Republican strategies from the past ~50 years (or longer, but that’s essentially the extent of my historical understanding) fertilized the field that sprouted Trump — not just his ability to get elected, but his own ideology and approach to life.
Another key culprit, in my humble opinion, is Democratic Party leadership. It should not have promoted such a heavily unliked politician (whether that likability was due to 25 years of false smears, Hillary’s introverted nature, or bad timing in what society values). What would have happened if Marco Rubio was the nominee? The public wanted change (as it often does when a president has served 8 years) and the party went with one of the most “establishment” candidates in history. The establishment can love an establishment candidate, but it should do a better job of realizing when the public doesn’t.
And Hillary’s own campaign dropped the ball, in my humble opinion. Hindsight is 20/20, but a telling note I just read is that Hillary and her team ignored the advice of an exceptional political campaigner, Bill Clinton himself, in charting the course for Hillary’s campaign. The brilliant Glenn Rush writes: “Bill Clinton complained throughout that Mook was too focused on the ground game and not enough on driving a message-based campaign.” It was all about the ground game, and Donald losing the election himself. “Let’s let a master of branding focus on branding while we focus on knocking on doors,” is essentially what the team said and did. (My words, not a real quote.) The campaign didn’t have 3–5 strong lines that it pounded into the American public’s head for months and months — it didn’t even have one. It moved from one topic to another, one attack to another. I think it’s actually part of Trump’s genius as a liar and brander — he says so many things that ruffle feathers that people don’t stick to one. It is repetition that wins in sales, and Trump diffuses the attacks by giving his thoughtful competitors too many things to attack. Call it guerilla defense.
Naturally, Trump’s attacks are not so diffuse. He identifies a weakness in his opponents that people can practically feel, he gives it a label/nickname, and he pounds away at it incessantly. It is how bullies break down their chosen scapegoats and drive some of them to collapse, putting them on the doorstep to suicide. I don’t have to tell you Trump’s nickname for Hillary — it is engrained in your head. Ironically, the media that Trump blasts so vindictively spent 25 years giving Trump an easy target, and then the media “did its job” — it focused on that topic more than anything else.