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The Media

(Topics: Private Sector | Back to Home)

It's hard to think of any sector in private industry that is more misunderstood than the media. The way people talk about news and entertainment [1] organizations often shows just how inaccurately those groups are perceived. What many of us think about them is simply false.

But “that's not true” doesn't mean “the opposite is true.” The truth might be something else entirely. And that's the case with the media. Let's examine some myths about the media.

Americans hate/distrust the media

This isn't true. Of course, some Americans have zero trust in media, but not a majority [2]. Right now, the percentage is around 34%. That figure is up from 6% back in 1972, so if you're looking for a trend, there's one to consider.

But, as the expression goes, we should follow the money. Newspaper circulation revenue is up almost continuously since 1960, cable news audiences are up since 2016, total news media advertising revenues are up since 2011 [3]. So maybe more of us don't trust the news, but we're spending more money on the news overall. How does that work?

The answer is that even though we don't believe everything we hear, the news is the starting point for conversations. It is the baseline for our reactions. Something is reported on the news, and then we talk about it.

Maybe because it confirms our fears, or because we think it can't be real. But we have to start somewhere, and we often start with what we see and hear from the news media.

News stories represent political bias

This isn't true. But the truth is often a lot worse.

The main criteria for what a news organization decides to cover is right in the name. For it to be news, it must be new. Or, as every journalism student learns, “Dog Bites Man” is not a story worth any ink, but “Man Bites Dog” should make the front page.

If it hasn't happened before, or doesn't happen very often, it's probably news. This is also why we get news stories on the anniversaries of past news stories, because we've never before had the 10-year anniversary of that thing that happened ten years ago.

This also means that if you want to get covered in the news, doing something new is a good way to get attention. Which brings us to the second reason that stories get coverage: they are going to have a strong emotional impact on the public.

It's not that the media is pushing a left-leaning or right-leaning agenda. Instead, the media is trying to get you to read, watch, and click.

Journalists don't tell the truth

This isn't true. Journalists (at least usually) are saying what they believe to be true at the time they say it. But with any new situation, new facts are constantly coming out. New sources are being identified. The context is shifting, and we're still trying to understand what this story means.

The big problem isn't about not telling the truth. It's about correcting the error, which will never be as significant as the initial story. In a blog post from the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University explains the impact [4]:

  • In a 24/7, social media news environment, corrected stories never achieve the reach of the original story
  • Different social media platforms have different capabilities (no editing posts in Twitter, for example), requiring multiple workflows
  • Possibly most vexing, even after someone sees a corrected story, the misinformation is often what persists in their memory.

Obviously, the advice is “don't make the mistakes up front” but that's hard to do as well. Especially because journalists—like people working in any other field—are competing to be the first to the market.

The problem isn't that journalists don't tell the truth. It's that news is fast-paced and fast-breaking, but being accurate and providing context takes time.

The New York Times (and other news media sources) are failing

This isn't true. The New York Times is doing fine:

And in general, the media industry is growing. Of course, you may not like what these companies are doing, but they are certainly financially successful.

Even more myths

Rapid-fire edition:

Hollywood is destroying our culture. No, it's not. We're the ones deciding to go and see these films.

Reporters are supposed to be objective. No, they aren't. Journalists are human beings, and they have biases, preferences, and personal experiences. Rather, it is the story that should be objective, but reporting what happened and giving different points of view on what happened. That doesn't mean every viewpoint is going to be represented, or even that the sides will be equally shown.

The media is a driving force in exposing corruption. Probably not. Often it's the people in the institutions that find the problems, and the media is only reporting on it. There are cases of a media exposé, but for the most part these would have happened anyway. The media accelerates awareness of a scandal. But internal mechanisms are what bring it to the forefront [5].

Yes, You Should Watch the News, But...

The truth is more complicated and more nuanced than can be covered in a headline, a two minute segment, or even a magazine cover story. But it's worth paying attention, because the news is where we begin the conversation.

It's how we find out what's going on. Or at least, how we find out what journalists think is going on, because they are the ones paying attention to what's new.

Once we hear from them, it's up to us to decide what do.


[1] The “news media” and the “entertainment media” are difficult to separate. Most TV stations have lots of programming of each kind. Even the cable news networks, such as Fox, MSNBC, or CNN, spend much of their broadcast time on both. And, what do we call modern media organizations, such as Google and Facebook?

[2] https://news.gallup.com/poll/1663/media-use-evaluation.aspx

[3] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/07/27/6-key-takeaways-about-the-state-of-the-news-media-in-2020/

[4] https://newscollab.org/2019/11/07/journalism-corrections-in-theory-and-practice-its-complicated/

[5] https://mediamythalert.com/2009/11/02/media-myths-faqs/


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