Americans point to the media as a leading cause of political division. Investigating the problem reveals a lot about the nation itself.
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In a recent interview with CBS News, former U.S. President Barack Obama expressed his anxiety about the future of the United States, calling out a “divided media” as his primary concern.
“The thing that I’m most worried about is the degree to which we’ve now had a divided conversation, in part because we have a divided media,” Mr. Obama told the interviewer.
Half the country would applaud this seemingly objective sentiment from the former president. The other half would quickly point to Mr. Obama as part of the problem.
The strong emotion on both sides perfectly sets the table for what this article is about.
An increasing number of Amer-icans are getting fed up with the division in the country, blaming politicians, corporations and the media itself for the rift.
Nearly three-quarters of adults say the news media is increasing political polarization in America. Just under half say they have little to no trust in the media’s ability to report the news fairly and accurately. This is according to a recent survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
“The news riles people up,” said 53-year-old Barbara Jordan, a Democrat from Hutchinson, Kansas. Ms. Jordan said she now does her own online research instead of going by what she sees on the TV news. “You’re better off Googling something and learning about it. I trust the internet more than I do the TV,” she told The Associated Press.
The ability of individual citizens to customize their news diet through the internet and social media can thrust people into an echo chamber in which they repeatedly hear the same information and opinions. The result is a confirmation bias which drives people to sources that only reinforce their existing beliefs.
A GCF Global article titled “What is an echo chamber?” explained the phenomenon. “Echo chambers can create misinformation and distort a person’s perspective so they have difficulty considering opposing viewpoints and discussing complicated topics.”
The article added, “On the internet, almost anyone can quickly find like-minded people and perspectives via social media and countless news sources.”
People stuck in echo chambers are precisely whom the modern news organizations seek.
Strong emotions drive viewership. For instance, during the presidency of Donald Trump—one of the most polarizing figures in U.S. history—news viewership and attention exploded.
If you despised President Trump, outlets were catering to you. If you thought Mr. Trump could do no wrong, opposing outlets were catering to you, too. People divided into their respective camps and dug in—all to the exuberance of media outlets.
The public’s increased news interest seemed to come at the cost of their perception of the media’s objectivity.
Only 16 percent of adults remain very confident in the media’s ability to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. In comparison, 45 percent have little to no confidence in the media’s objectivity.
“Everyone tells a different story. The media does nothing but stir up fear,” said Janis Fort, a retired 71-year-old Republican who lives in Navarre, Florida. “For me, and for most of the people I know, we feel like we’re totally in the dark.”
Partisan views on cable news outlets and social media platforms are conditioning Americans to see one another as enemies, said Joe Salegna, a Republican who lives on Long Island, New York.
“I think it’s tearing this country apart,” Mr. Salegna, 50, told AP. “Since the 2016 election I think it’s gotten a lot worse.”
Media companies may be adding to their bottom lines, but at what cost? The battle for eyeballs, clicks and followers is dividing the nation.
Freedom of the press under the First Amendment gives the media the right to publish and disseminate news without the threat of censorship or constraint. Yet with this freedom comes ethical responsibility.
News outlets have an obligation to act in good faith and the public interest. At least that is what should be happening. The government is supposed to help ensure the press behaves appropriately. How are they doing?
Only 44 percent of respondents in the AP poll say the U.S. government is doing a good job upholding freedom of the press standards, while 24 percent believe it is doing a bad job.
In our highly politicized environment, many see the government less as a media regulator and instead accuse them of using the media to disseminate its propaganda.
Gone are the days when local issues stayed local. Now every story, regardless of where it took place, becomes fodder fueling the national narratives of politicians seeking to leverage opinions to their side of the aisle.
According to the AP poll, only around a third of adults feel that the news media do a good job covering broader topics such as the military and national defense, crime and elections. It is these issues, along with polarizing topics such as abortion, civil rights and climate change, that politicians and audience-hungry media use to boost their revenues.
A big problem is that these broader issues play differently in every local community. For instance, those in towns bordering Mexico view immigration stories differently than those in the Midwest. Yet this does not stop national media from broadly reporting such stories, often out of context, whipping up their audience. Nuance and subtlety are nowhere to be found.
According to the survey, people say they value in-depth and investigative reporting, but are proving less likely to engage with such content. When trying to understand these issues, people often scan headlines instead of slogging through comprehensive investigative reporting or stories with in-depth background information and analysis. The result? Consumers form opinions without having all the facts.
At best, an unwillingness to engage with long-form stories leaves news outlets to wonder if pouring resources into in-depth reporting is worth it. At worst, the public being headline-focused incentivizes outlets to manipulate them into reading sensationalized stories with the truth stretched painfully thin.
On top of all of this, political bias usually rules the day. Those working for a left-leaning outlet are expected to express left-leaning views. The same applies to right-leaning outlets. This all further obscures what is actually going on in the world.
There is little motivation for producers and reporters to sincerely and objectively offer a counter-narrative to the prevailing view of their employer and colleagues. Speaking against the views of senior staff or editors can amount to career suicide. This reality can lead to an echo chamber even within a media company.
Nearly all adults surveyed—93 percent—view the spread of misinformation, which is false or inaccurate information, as a problem.
About two-thirds blame its spread on politicians, social media companies and their users. But nearly as many, 58 percent, hold the news media responsible. And when it comes to fixing the problem, 63 percent of adults say the news media has a great deal or quite a bit of responsibility to address the spread of false or misleading information.
What makes misinformation difficult to police is that it is not tied to intent. Unlike disinformation, which is the intentional spread of lies or partial truths, misinformation can result from sloppy reporting or blending opinion with the facts of a story. The result, however, is the same: A growing lack of trust in media.
Concern about the threat posed by misinformation unites Americans of both parties. A third of adults say they see stories with false claims from politicians or misleading headlines every day. Nineteen percent say they face conspiracy theories in news stories daily.
Digital media throws fuel on the fire. To paraphrase an old saying: Fake news gets halfway around the world before the carefully reported truth can put its pants on. While most reputable outlets will revise or retract false or inaccurate stories, the damage caused by bad initial reporting has already been done.
Coverage of recent presidential elections, the coronavirus pandemic, protests against police killings of black Americans and other events convinced many Americans that the media should not be believed.
Given the widespread concerns about misinformation, most adults report engaging in behaviors at least some of the time to avoid consuming or spreading misinformation, such as checking multiple sources or deciding not to share content on social media. Yet most do not have the time or the desire to go to such lengths.
“There still is good journalism, it’s just the internet has made it so that anybody can be a quote-unquote journalist,” said Chris Nettell, of Hickory Creek, Texas, who said he leans Democrat. “We have some news media that only goes after a certain segment of society, and then those people think, because it’s all they read, that everyone else believes it too.”
Social media has made things worse. According to a 2020 Pew survey, about half of U.S. adults get their news from Twitter, Facebook and the like.
From the audience’s perspective, social media is appealing because it has little to no filters between specific personalities or outlets and the public. Some view this as meaning the information has less bias—but the tradeoff is that it comes with little to no journalistic standards.
Some are beginning to understand this, with nearly two-thirds of respondents to the poll saying that when they see a news story on social media, they expect it to be inaccurate. However, those who regularly rely on social media for their news are more likely to trust it than others.
“So many people get their information from social media, and people believe whatever they want to believe,” said Araceli Cervantes, a 39-year-old Chicago mother of four who said she is a Republican.
Research shows that fragmentation of the media ecosystem is primarily driven by the internet and contributes to political polarization. “We should be concerned for the health of democracy,” said Joshua Tucker, a political scientist at New York University who studies partisanship and co-directs NYU’s Center for Social Media.
Much of the reason for the rise in social media as a news source is the breakdown of trust in legacy media such as The New York Times, Time and The Wall Street Journal. Often this stems from a perceived control by corporate or government interests or the growing lack of public trust in major institutions.
In rejecting mainstream media, however, people expose themselves to less established, and in many cases less reputable, news sources.
Newer outlets are often under-resourced and lack the training and experience to cover news in a professional, non-partisan way. And many have no intention of objectivity and seek to do whatever is necessary to garner attention. “Getting clicks” is how things work on social media, but applying that to the news does nothing but erode established standards and journalistic integrity.
Driven by Nature
The media has clearly earned some blame for the nation’s political and ideological divide. But slow down and consider: Is the press the cause of division in America or only the result?
Media companies are for-profit businesses. Six companies control most of U.S. media, with five controlling many of the most well-known outlets. Comcast controls NBC. Walt Disney Company oversees ABC. Warner Bros. Discovery owns CNN. National Amusements has CBS. NewsCorp controls Fox News. These companies, worth a combined $396 billion, are all fiercely competing for the attention of hundreds of millions of media-hungry Americans.
And while these companies may dominate the media landscape, there is the constant presence of smaller news companies and start-ups looking to siphon off the vast billions that flow through the industry annually. Results show that people want outlets that take a firm stance on their side of the ideological aisle while obliterating the other side.
So, if the news industry is simply giving people what they want, who is really to blame for the division? A profit-driven media industry or the agenda-driven audience they seek to satisfy?
This chicken-or-egg conundrum is hard to pin down for an important reason. Both the media and its audience are made up of people. Why is that important? Because people are human, and humans have human nature.
The Bible reveals that human nature is driven by vanity, jealousy, lust, hatred, selfishness, greed and more. Making matters worse, human nature has a built-in unwillingness to change. This drives people to seek out what they want to hear—news that espouses and validates their existing beliefs.
Ideally, news would primarily be fact-driven, not tailored to a particular audience. If an outlet is going to give the perspective of a particular side, it should offer equal space to other points of view. Sadly, this even-handed approach does not sell papers or get clicks.
Human nature is at the center of many of mankind’s problems and is the primary cause of America’s media divide.
In his booklet Did God Create Human Nature?, David C. Pack explores why human beings are capable of both significant achievements and terrible evils. He explains that God did not create human nature but that it came from an invisible spirit called Satan, who influences and deceives people.
The Bible reveals his power: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ…should shine unto them” (II Cor. 4:4).
Because of his powerful influence, you should view human nature as really Satan’s nature.
This may seem harsh and hard to believe at first. But the Bible shows that Satan broadcasts his attitudes, moods and impulses into human minds, making them think they are their own. Read Ephesians 2:2. This gives him godlike influence over society.
Human nature is hostile to the true God and His truth (Rom. 8:7). People desperately need God’s help to overcome this and break the pattern of thinking the way the devil does.
To learn more about human nature and other specific ways it affects people, read Did God Create Human Nature?
This article contains information from The Associated Press.