Tag Archives: media

“Facts Don’t Win Elections”

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton recently reflected upon the disconnect between crime statistics and popular beliefs about violent crime.

The disconnect between actual rates of violent crime and the public perception of the rates of violent crime is astonishing. In 2014, 63% of Americans believed that violent crime was going up when, in reality, it’s been dropping steadily for 25 years and has dropped 20% in the last 8 years. In fact, a majority of Americans have believed that every year since 2003.

There are several explanations that can be offered for that disconnect, but undoubtedly, the media bears considerable responsibility. Not only do news sources–particularly television news–focus on crime (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but the number of movies and popular television shows that feature crime fighters of one sort or another (everything from the multiple versions of Law and Order and NCIS to lawyer shows to cops and robbers) sometimes seem to dwarf other kinds of subject matter.

It isn’t just that the media report so prominently on local crime incidents. In the age of globalization, we see reports from all around the world. Did a bomb go off in a London subway? It makes the evening news. Was someone murdered in Paris? It makes the evening news. The impression is that danger lurks everywhere.

It isn’t all that innocent, however, as Brayton points out.

But I think there’s one more element to this that is important. One of our two major political parties has a huge interest in convincing people that violent crime is getting worse instead of better. And one of the most influential interest groups for that party, the NRA, has become little more than the marketing wing of the gun industry. And surveys also show that support for gun rights goes up as fear of crime goes up. So there is a huge incentive to lie to people and convince them that crime is going up. And since, as noted above, most people have no experience with actual violent crime, the media images and political messages that focus on violent crime are more likely to be effective.

Thus you get what happened at the RNC, where they were selling not only the idea of a dystopic future but a dystopic present. They presented America as a hellscape of violence that simply does not exist, despite some high-profile situations that got enormous media saturation. It has never been safer to be an American. It’s never been safer to be a cop in America. Those are the facts. But facts don’t win elections.

Facts. Evidence. Reality. Next to a good story, I guess they don’t stand much of a chance.

Politics and the Press–Redux

Last night, I participated in a panel discussion focused in part upon the role of the press in the 2016 election cycle.

In my brief introductory remarks, I began by noting that the course in Media and Public Policy that I teach every two years requires an entirely new syllabus every time I teach it, because the media environment and the way we citizens get our information is constantly changing.

I also emphasized the difference between MEDIA and JOURNALISM. We are marinating in media, but we are losing what used to be called the journalism of verification. And I ticked off some of what I see as the consequences of this new reality:

  • The competition for eyeballs and clicks has given us a 24/7 “news hole” that media outlets race to fill—far too often prioritizing speed over accuracy.
  • That same competition has given us sports and gossip and opinion—often wildly inaccurate– rather than the watchdog journalism that informs citizens. It’s cheaper to produce, and (let’s be honest) those are the things people click on and watch.
  • We still have national coverage but with the exception of niche media, we have lost local news. The reporters with institutional memory who produced it are gone. There’s virtually no coverage of either the Indiana statehouse or the City-County building—instead we get the “beer beat,” telling us where to party on the weekend.
  • Most troubling of all is the “filter bubble.” The Internet has exponentially expanded our ability to live in a reality of our own creation, where (in defiance of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum) we can indeed choose our own “facts.” Political psychologists call this behavior “confirmation bias.” We used to call it “cherry picking”—the intellectually dishonest process of picking through information sources from the bible to the U.S. budget looking for evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs.

As I tell my students, the sad state of journalism is ultimately our fault. The media is giving us what sells. If a naked Kardashian gets more clicks than articles about school vouchers, naked Kardashians are what we’ll get. When Donald Trump’s inane insults and kindergarten antics make money for the media, the media gives us nonstop Trump.

How all this will affect the 2016 elections is anyone’s guess, but a recent report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center isn’t comforting.

The report shows that during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more “good press” than “bad press.” The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.

The Democratic race in 2015 received less than half the coverage of the Republican race. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was largely ignored in the early months but, as it began to get coverage, it was overwhelmingly positive in tone. Sanders’ coverage in 2015 was the most favorable of any of the top candidates, Republican or Democratic. For her part, Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate. In 11 of the 12 months, her “bad news” outpaced her “good news,” usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.

Now, if Clinton’s negative coverage consisted of actual news, emerging information that had not already been exhaustively covered, that would be appropriate. But as the report notes,

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end. Of the eight news outlets in our study, Fox News easily led the way. Clinton received 291 negative reports on Fox, compared with only 39 positive ones, most of which were in the context of poll results that showed her with a wide lead….

What accounts for Clinton’s negative coverage? One reason is the schizophrenic quality of journalists’ coverage of a “front-running” candidate. It is the story of a candidate with a solid lead, which is the main source of the candidate’s “good news.” There is, however, a less positive aspect to a frontrunner’s story.  The candidate is typically described as overly calculating and cautious—the implication is that the candidate is withholding something from the voters. And if the frontrunner loses support in the polls—a virtual certainty given the artificial boost that comes from high name recognition in the earliest polls—the narrative tilts negative.

We voters have to rely on the media for our information about the candidates. But in this media environment, in this time and place, we need to be very careful consumers of what passes for news.

The Crux of the Problem….

Yesterday’s discussion of trade agreements generated a number of thoughtful comments. As regular readers know, I rarely “weigh in” to the back-and-forth (for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a day job), but I do want to focus in on an observation posted by Pete, because it describes an under-appreciated challenge of modernity that has increasingly been troubling me.

Pete said:

Trade agreements are very complex to even read and comprehend much less determine their impact over time on the greater good. I’m not sure why anyone would believe that they totally understand any of them based on advertising or even real news if you can find it.

That’s why I rely on other professionals like Drs and lawyers for their specialties and why I hope they rely on folks like me to keep wings from falling off airplanes.

It’s the most pernicious of modern myths that we are capable of understanding the intricacies of many many things including international trade.

It isn’t only complex trade agreements. It’s the increasing fragmentation and specialization that characterizes contemporary societies and modernity in general.

The problem, as Pete notes, is that none of us is a polymath capable of independently assessing the credibility of information about our modern environments: whether the airplane has been properly designed, the trade pact adequately protects our interests, the new medication is free of side effects, the scientists are accurately measuring climate change…We have no choice but to depend upon the informed, professional opinions of those who are expert in these various fields.

And right now, most of us don’t trust anyone. Worse, we don’t know how to determine who is expert and trustworthy.

There are a lot of reasons for our pervasive skepticism. Our current “wild west” information landscape is a major one: at the same time that media has made us aware of the myriad ways in which our public institutions have failed us (Enron, the “banksters,” the Catholic Church molestation scandals, major league sports dopers and “deflaters,” government officials…), that same media has itself morphed and fragmented, causing us to lose much of what used to be called the “journalism of verification.”

At the same time that we are positively marinating in “information”–much of it trivial and/or bogus– determining the credibility of that information and the identity and credentials of its source has become challenging if not impossible. We have “news” without context. Even reputable studies and surveys are cherry-picked and distorted. As a result, in areas where we do not possess the historical, scientific or technical knowledge to critically evaluate what we read or hear–which for most of us, is most areas–we simply choose to believe sources that confirm our pre-existing biases.

Even when Pete’s plane flies and the wings don’t fall off, a sizable percentage of us will choose to believe reports that it crashed.

In our internet age, with both information and misinformation ubiquitous, the challenge is to combat propaganda and spin without doing damage to the First Amendment–and to build and monitor trustworthy social institutions and a credible and trusted media. That will require–at the very least–a vastly improved public education system that equips citizens to evaluate the credibility of information sources, and the emergence of a rigorous and ethical journalism.

We don’t seem very committed to either task.

 

Explaining Why “It Depends”

These days, commenting on public policy and the political environment is a mostly depressing slog through various bigotries, misunderstandings, inadequate communications—in a nutshell (and boy, sometimes it is a “nut” shell!), a hot mess.

When I look for an explanation, a common thread that might shed some light on the place we find ourselves, I keep coming back to the unsettled, fragmented and frequently unreliable sources from which Americans get our information, and the seeming loss of what we used to call the journalism of verification.

Obviously, the information landscape is not wholly responsible for all of our various crises of governance, but it sure is implicated in much of it.

The Brookings Institution recently issued a report on the importance of what it called “explanatory journalism.” After noting the wealth of information now available online, and the fact that the internet has enabled unprecedented access to millions of people who didn’t previously have such access.

The digital revolution has laid waste to the 20th century business models of news reporting and publication but even in these early days of the digital revolution, citizens seeking information about politicians, public policy, and government performance have resources never before imagined.

But that, of course, raises the pertinent question:

But how many such model citizens take advantage of these resources to exercise the popular sovereignty and democratic accountability at the core of our democracy? Most citizens are inadvertent consumers of news about politics and government, limited mostly to local television news dominated by crime, traffic and weather, with mere snippets of news related to public affairs, along with emails from family and friends forwarding materials that sound plausible but often are the opposite. Their lives are filled with responsibilities and interests that draw their attention away from election campaigns and policy battles. What little they know and learn about politics is often laden with misinformation and provides little basis for coming to public judgment beyond group identities, tribal loyalties and fleeting impressions of candidates and officeholders.

What citizens know ultimately depends upon the credibility of the information sources they access. If my students are any indication, most of us lack skill in evaluating such credibility–and the opinions of assorted “crazy uncles” and radio shock jocks suggest that  a substantial number of Americans are uninterested in information that contradicts their preferred world views.

The results aren’t pretty. These paragraphs from the report say it better than I could:

American democracy has come under severe strains in recent years. We’ve seen a precipitous decline of trust in its central political institutions, the radicalization of one of its two major political parties, a vehement oppositional politics in Congress that has turned divided party government into a graveyard for nominations, while turning legislative initiatives and congressional oversight into little more than a weapon of partisan warfare. All of this has been capped off with the emergence of a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination uniquely miscast for the office whose election would constitute a threat to American democracy and make a mockery of the U.S. leadership position in the world.

The roots of America’s dysfunctional politics are deep and complex. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to say that the media has done little to help the public understand what is amiss. An aggressively partisan talk radio, cable news, web and social media community has fueled a tribal politics that traffics in lies and conspiracies. The mainstream media has handcuffed itself out of fear of charges of partisan bias into antiseptic balanced treatment of both sides in spite of their obvious asymmetries. This pattern of false equivalence has served to reinforce a generalized, inchoate public distemper, one that is vulnerable to radical and anti-democratic appeals.

The question is: what can we do about it?

None of the Explanations are Pretty

Implicit bias, anyone?

Two profoundly depressing examples of implicit bias–not to mention the deficits of today’s media–were on display in Indianapolis last week.

The first–and arguably most embarrassing–occured when Ben Carson endorsed Donald Trump; Fox 59 showed a picture of Trump with a photograph of Indianapolis Democratic African-American Representative Andre Carson superimposed.

Because all of “them” look alike?

And how oblivious to the political environment they cover did the newsroom have to be in order to confuse a black Democrat who happens to be one of two Muslims serving in the U.S. House with a sycophantic joke of a presidential candidate? Did they really think Andre Carson would have endorsed a xenophobe who wants to bar Muslims from the country?

Equally discouraging, if not as inexplicable, was the early reporting about a shooting involving an IFD officer. According to later, corrected reports, Michael “Kevin” Gill, a veteran of the Indianapolis Fire Department, was shot outside a house and ran into a nearby mosque seeking help.

Earlier, “breaking news” had reported that Gill was shot inside the mosque. (The definition of prejudice is to “pre-judge”…).

Tribalism–and its exploitation by demagogues seeking political power– is creating a meaner, more dangerous America.