"We’ve got facts, they say. But facts aren’t everything; at least half the battle consists in how one makes use of them!”
– Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
When discussing issues of media bias, people talk as if there’s a single version of the truth.
But that phrase: “the truth” – what does that even mean?
No matter how biased, media outlets don’t normally make up facts. They may do a lot of things, but very rarely do they simply invent things, and if they do, it’s a major scandal by which people lose their jobs.
Yet both sides of the political divide claim bias and dishonesty on the other side. Conservatives say The New York Times is dishonest, and liberals say the same about Fox News. I don’t believe either side just makes things up, so why is their reporting so divergent?
- The media – on both sides – subdivides The Truth into many individual Truths
- As media consumers, we don’t want to invest the effort understand the single Truth
- Media consumers have confirmation bias, and we want The Truth that makes us feel like our view of the world is correct
- Media companies have courted specific biases, and they filter Their Truth to match it
From an article entitled “We Need a New Media System”:
Media firms work backward. They first ask, “How does our target demographic want to understand what’s just unfolded?” Then they pick both the words and the facts they want to emphasize.
[…] News companies now clean world events like whalers, using every part of the animal, funneling different facts to different consumers based upon calculations about what will bring back the biggest engagement kick.
Humans tend to want to isolate things to make them easier to understand. We love it when situations are black and white – we don’t like shades of gray. When the cognitive load gets too great, we tend to toss peripheral items overboard and concentrate on what we consider are the pertinent facts of a situation, to the exclusion of everything else.
But very rarely does anything happen in isolation. Any single fact is one element of a larger story. The Truth – the thing that no one can dispute is an accurate representation of reality – is the sum total of every possible input into that story, both immediately prior and historically. How many of those facts are relevant inputs into the story?
It’s like throwing a rock into a pond, and having water ripple outwards. Clearly, ripples close to the impact were caused by it. But they get less directly related the further away you are. And whose to say if the soft lapping of water all the way on the opposite bank had anything to do with the rock you threw?
The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 are both an immediate reaction to the death of George Floyd, and an accumulated reaction to everything Blacks have gone through in the history of this country and how they have reacted to it.
That is indisputably The Truth.
But what the media is reporting is a subset of The Truth – let’s call it A Truth. A particular media outlet will fixate on some smaller subset of the facts of the entire scope of the situation, and present that as The Truth, while ignoring all the other facts, which the news media on the other side of the political spectrum is quick to seize on and indict the others for not reporting.
There are many individual Truths inside The Truth, and no one can present them all, so they pick one and go with it.
A, B, and C might be the entire truth. One media outlet will select A and C to report, and the other will select B, and somehow connect it to D which is tangentially related.
The key part is this: neither media outlet is lying, they just picked different facts to report and emphasize.
And how can you evaluate “lying by omission” in these instances? The analysis of complex societal problems is often subjective, and valid claims can be made as to whether B and D actually relate to A and C in any meaningful way (indeed, who decides what’s “meaningful”?). Soon, you’re not arguing about facts, but about opinions of why things happened the way they did and what inputs influenced how it played out. That can quickly segue into value judgments as about what we consider important as humans and what that says about our level of empathy and caring for other people.
This is exacerbated by the “gatekeeper effect.” Unless you’re standing on the ground as a physical witness to events, the media is the gatekeeper to what we learn about the world. The gatekeeper decides who gets to pass through the gate. Different media outlets have different criteria and angles they want and need to exploit to keep their readers happy, so they report facts that fit that narrative – they report A Truth, not The Truth.
Years ago, I read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It’s a history of the country from what Zinn claims is the perspective of the people. It recounts horrible abuses of power and suppression of native peoples and workers. To put a label on it, it’s a wildly Left-wing re-telling of the history of my country that you would never find in any history book.
Reddit has a subreddit called AskHistorians. As the title would suggest, it’s a bunch of historians who will answer questions from anyone. I was disturbed by Zinn’s book, so I asked AskHistorians how accurate it was – did it represent The Truth?
Perhaps surprisingly given the leftward tilt of Reddit, the consensus was that Zinn didn’t invent any facts – he didn’t just randomly make up stories – but he did present only the stories that would get his point across. So, he selectively filtered the sum total of the history of the United States – that massive and elusive thing we would call The Truth – and cherry-picked A Truth which made the point he wanted to make.
But before we lament this situation too much, we need to acknowledge that it’s not resolvable. Because, how could anyone report The Truth even if they wanted to? We simply don’t have the time or attention span to sit through it.
I once read a 700-page history on the labor movement in the United States. It took me weeks. Yet I only scratched the surface of the sum total of information I’d need to master to understand The Truth of capitalism and labor relations. The next time a labor situation came up in the news, I certainly had a little bit more perspective, but more than anything, it just demonstrated to me how big the gaps in my knowledge were. (See: Duning-Kruger Effect.)
In daily media consumption, we seek “News McNuggets” – easily digestible, self-contained items of news that we believe encapsulate The Truth without too much of the cognitive stress that comes with complicating factors and shades of gray. (Hosted news shows are great for this – looking right at you Tucker Carlson and John Oliver.)
But News McNuggets are only found in A Truth, not The Truth. So we usually pick the media that will convey A Truth that will give us the endorphin rush we want, which means we seek out media we know we’re going to agree with. We live in security bubbles of our own creation. (See: Filter Bubble, and read Pariser’s book)
The late Roger Ailes from Fox News reportedly once said:
People do not want to be informed, they want to feel informed.
(It doesn’t even matter if Ailes actually said it – it’s still an incredibly accurate statement.)
And this is how the news media can be dishonest without lying. I sincerely believe that Fox News doesn’t make anything up, but they sure as hell don’t present the entirety of any situation either. Neither does MSNBC.
And they can’t. Because we don’t have the time for it.
You can rail against “Fake News” all you want, but just know that your news is no more The Truth than mine is. We’re both getting different Truths and then pretending like there is no other. But The Truth exists only in lived experience. Everything else is interpretation and spin.
Sadly, if there’s one real truth behind all this, it’s that we live in exactly the media environment we’ve asked for.