My other half habitually surfs through a number of national and international news channels in the evenings. Our house is small, so I’m captive to whatever noise emanates from these rotating broadcasts. Sometimes this noise really gets under my skin. Such as? Such as the current tabloid coverage of the Gabby Petito case by the hyper-partisan media giants: MSNBC, CNN, and FOX. But, am I being a tad too hard on this gaudy news-trio?
I’m going to answer this question in two separate posts. The first concerns hyper-partisanship, the second tabloid journalism. (Note my stipulation of hyper-partisanship. I doubt expunging all partisanship from news media is possible or even desirable. But I won’t worry that doubt here.)
In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985, 2005), Neal Postman warns that the medium of television radically alters both the content of news and our expectations of what the media ought to deliver: entertainment. Paraphrasing Postman, television is a multi-media that draws from myriad sources which are then rapidly displayed to myriad audiences. Hence televised news is delivered in fragments of decontextualised information which nevertheless elicits in the viewer an impression of a coherent narrative and a feeling of being informed. But she’s not. And worse, as Postman worries, she’s rendered unable to know she’s not. She’s ignorant of her own ignorance.
Postman is charitable to broadcasters by issuing the caveat that 1) they don’t necessarily intend to deprive viewers of “a contextual, coherent understanding of their world.” Rather, he says, 2) “when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result” (Part II, Ch. 7: “Now… This”). (1) is probably true, but I’m not so sure about (2).
[Note: i) I refer to Postman’s book as a talking point, not to proffer a critique and, ii) sufficient for my purposes, I don’t distinguish television from other visual electronic media as these devices are increasingly indistinguishable.]
If news is now just entertainment, then there are people it entertains. And so I should ask What is news, who does it serve, and what function(s) does it perform? as much as I should ask the same of entertainment. But I’ll consider only the news in this post, entertainment in the next.
News is broadly taken to mean reports conveying information about recent events. But what is meant by information and, by extension, being informed? Information refers to data about some thing(s) or some set of circumstances which can be given and received between one party and another. The concept of information can be nitpicked, but it roughly adheres to this definition. A more difficult concept is what is meant by being informed.
Being informed might refer to being in a process of receiving information. But notice the following difference between being informed and will be informed. The public is being informed of the current civil unrest by the 24-hour official state news channel. The public will be informed of the current civil unrest by the 24-hour official state news channel.
The difference is subtle, but being informed can denote the giving of information presently in action where will be informed means only that information will be given at some future point in time. Note that both of these examples inform the reader about the transfer of information from one party to another — from whom to whom, when, about what, and by what means. Hence certain information is required in order to give or receive related information, i.e. context.
Recall Postman’s worry that television news media decontextualises information. But how and from what? A news broadcast itself gives context to the information it conveys, setting up its viewers’ expectations that they are being presented with the news. Some complain when a broadcast doesn’t conform to the model of a news report. Why do I care if the Shoo-fly plant originated in Peru? That’s not news! Others complain when something trivial is broadcast. Must be a slow news day. And so one commentary happens on the broadcaster’s side, another on the viewer’s. But a commentary also occurs between viewers.
What one hears (watches, reads) on the news she takes to the lunch room, to her family and friends, to Facebook and the like; i.e. her peeps. Hence she doesn’t take just any news. Nor does she recount an entire broadcast, even if she could. Rather she is selective not only about which information she takes from the broadcast(s) to present to her peeps, but she is also quite selective about how she presents it. That is, she indicates — by words, tone, gestures — how she feels about the news, her attitude towards it. And her interlocutors are paying attention to these displays.
The attitude one expresses toward information tends to be correlated with the likelihood of her believing what she’s heard, or what she wants others to believe she believes. This expression includes her attitude toward the news anchor, station, or who or what’s being covered in the story. Do you know what FOX/CNN is reporting today?! Oh Gawd, that Cuomo/Carlson! Can you believe that Andrew Cuomo/those women?! This animated commentary does more than just a little work.
We — me, you, and everybody — seldom convey juicy news as if we’re mere reporters. Imagine the following meeting between two friends. Friend one: Hello, today in the news Monica Schaefer was sentenced to ten months in a German maximum security prison for Holocaust denial. Unblinking, friend two replies: A referendum will be held on October 18th to determine whether Albertans want to abolish daylight savings time. In unison, as the friends depart: Good Night!
Do we want, or should we expect, these sorts of sterile broadcasts from news reporters? (The same question applies to editorialising news articles.)
Consider this. Attitudes play a vital role in the evaluation of information, providing information about information. The way one feels about a bit of news is apiece with risk assessment. Should I be afraid? Should I trust the source? These feelings are also apiece with belonging to the special groups we call our peeps. Should I speak up or shut up?
For social animals like ourselves, belonging is a non-trivial function. And I’m not talking about belonging as it creates and maintains ‘identity’ here. I’m referring to morbidity and mortality, and to all the things we call the good life. Belonging improves both our resistance to disease and to our sense of a life worth living. But the opposite is also true. A lack of belonging rivals health risks posed by smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. So there’s a two-way risk assessment going on when presented with news, and each is indexed to two kinds of information: social and evidential.
As social animals, humans rely on others for their survival and delectation (life’s pleasures). With this reliance in mind, it’s no surprise that, as evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar notes, “People remember social information better than they remember physical world factual content” (Dunbar, 206). So this recall bias is neither an intellectual nor a cognitive failing, but rather a naturally selected-for function of our brains.
Evidential information, i.e. information that purports to give evidence for matters of fact, is also a contributor to our survival and delectation, but usually as a subsidiary to its social function. Hence Dunbar’s observation that “It is clear that we aren’t all that keen to pass on information about the physical world unless it benefits our close family and friends” (Dunbar, 269).
The upshot is that we’ve evolved with an impulse to bring news stories to our peeps which serves a vital function both for belonging and for getting at factual information. Are these functions so different for us than for hyenas? You’re my pack (social) and the carrion is over that-away (evidential)!
Members of our group help us evaluate the truth or falsity of evidential information. Ask any scientist or researcher, each of whom depends on collaborators and scrutinisers for their truth-seeking objectives. As others mutually depend on them. It’s handy to have a scientist among your peeps, or a nurse, doctor, accountant, or plumber. People with certain skill sets. If you close your eyes and picture the faces of those you know well, you will also be able to list the things you can and can’t rely on for each.
Our peeps help us evaluate things like whether it’s a good time to buy a house, to change careers, or have a child. Our peeps also help us weed out the unsubstantial claims in political rhetoric. We can’t do this doxastic (belief-seeking) work ourselves on most topics, not only for lack time and information overload but also because our brains are expensive organs which use 20% of our glucose energy for these taxing tasks. So we distribute this physiological-psychological burden among those we trust to give us the best information available to them. And our most trusted sources are usually our peeps. The information our peeps share might be other sources of trusted information. I need a new doctor, mechanic, hairdresser.
Most often, our peeps don’t have any better grip on the veracity of the reports made by news media than we do. This general ignorance holds even for those who are very skilled in particular domains. Experts are experts about a very narrow slice of life. Experts are, by profession, intellectual snobs who are otherwise, as the song goes, just slobs like the rest of us. And as much as news broadcasters like to expound their commitment to the truth and decry the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation distributed by their rivals, newscasters aren’t in the business of reporting truth. Mainly because they can’t.
At best news anchors and their subsidiary staff reporters strive to be boots on the ground, making observations in the middle of a crisis. I’m Tamilla Turnspeak reporting from the eye of Hurricane Hildegaard. The roars behind me are the winds picking up again and — oh! A car is in the air and headed straight for my camerama…. They’ll forgo editorialising as they fill us in on current events, future events, and updates on past events. They keep us apprised of some of the things going on in the broader community, even the world. And they can serve a vital watchdog function by airing goings-on in our institutions, as well as providing our governing bodies some feedback about the mood of the public.
But not all news gets reported since, like individuals, there’s no way they can report on every going-on in the world. News broadcasts are necessarily comprised of selected content, and that content is vetted and edited by staff. News has to be vetted — by humans like us — for its relevance to viewers’ interests, to developing stories, and for its general newsworthiness. There are a lot of skilled judgment calls on these matters. So news broadcasters are operating under a lot of constraints, just like the rest of us.
One of these constraints is economic. Bills have to be paid, for licenses, salaries, insurance, equipment, and so on. So news broadcasters are beholden to advertisers, who make money from public revenue. Or to other forms of public revenue like taxes. It doesn’t follow that since what is often referred to as mainstream news is dependent on generating revenue or justifying its funding to taxpayers that the news is automatically untrustworthy. Operating costs are a fact of life. And viewers can sever a news broadcaster’s lifeline by withdrawing viewership, which they sometimes do.
There is no power that any news media has over its viewership that the viewership isn’t giving uptake to. No one is forcing viewers, Clockwork Orange-style, to watch or read the news. But all of the selection pressures together can certainly heighten the chances a particular audience will desire to watch. And these pressures include the naturally selected-for impulses for people to bring news to their peeps. (I’ll flesh out this claim in another post.)
If these impulses were neutral to the human organism or detrimental to its survival, they’d have been selected out long before. Like other social animals, we have a need to warn and inform others members of our groups. If the warning is There’s a tsunami headed your way, there won’t be a lot of consultation on the matter. Most will pick up their bags and run. But if news video footage shows rioters breaking out store front windows, viewers are going to talk. And this talk isn’t mere banter or spewing of opinions. We’re working things out, agreeing, disagreeing, agreeing to disagree.
With our peeps, we vet the kinds of beliefs that allow us to function as a group, such as our moral dispositions and conventions, e.g. what kind of language we’ll use. How we will live together. So I am really very worried about the kinds of things that interfere with this function. Such as the hyper-partisan broadcasts emanating from MSNBC, CNN, and FOX.
Hyper-partisan news media conveys social information to their audiences by way of fist-pumping rhetoric that cheers on their respective political camps and disses their opponents. Just like sports teams. Specifically, the social information is, Here are the views you must espouse to be a member of our team. And, here are the feelings of outrage and disgust you must display when referring to the opposite team.
If one can’t or is afraid to put news on the table, to comment on news others have brought to the table, or to have others to comment on theirs, then our abilities to work through what is likely true or untrue, which sources we should trust and to what extent, our morality, and our delectation, are all compromised. And a feedback loop is created whereby these social divisions are noted and further amplified by hyper-partisan news broadcasters.
On this score, I am not being too hard on MSNCBC, FOX, and CNN. With these stations you’re not getting news, you’re getting confirmation of your team membership.
(Dunbar, R. I. M. Evolution: Our Brains and Behaviour. New York : Oxford University Press, ; p. 206)