By Cassandra Leveille
Ask an American where they get their news, and the response would likely be a corporate media outlet, such as CNN, NBC or FOX. Contrary to popular belief, the average American can be said to have a tenuous grasp on current events. Although it can be said Americans are aware of the events taking place around them, the deeper causes and subtle ambiguities of any given situation is not information our culture exposes us to as a whole. As a result, even though someone may think he or she is “informed” because he or she watches the news every day, this would be a shortsighted assessment. Furthermore, because the information we receive everyday is robbed of its context, we are not as good at making connections as we could be. We become ahistorical citizens in a fast-paced society in which nothing in the modern popular consciousness is referred back to. As a result, our ability to understand the complexities of the political climate and cultural crossroads we are in is significantly diminished. By viewing the world in an ahistorical manner, we actively neglect the complexities and interconnectivity present in everyday global interactions; interactions that need to be crucially understood in today’s society.
Many news stories function purely on the anecdotal and do not reflect wider societal trends. Instead, the tendency veers towards oversimplification of issues in order to craft a punchy story that is easy to recall and acts on emotional triggers. We rely on a system in which successful news stations prosper by garnering high ratings as opposed to supplying substantial informational content. The ubiquity and bombardment of news, as seen by the existence of the 24-hour news cycle, is also a factor worth noting. Cynthia Scheibe, associate professor of psychology at Ithaca College, notes, “certainly the fast pace of most mediated news is an issue, but that would almost argue that they could fit more information into a news report, and all they tend to do is fit more news stories in a single evening, substituting quantity for quality.” We see, as a result, more items, but do not receive more context on these items as a result of the current structure of the news media.
Furthermore, the stories that are purported to be “breaking news” are news items that seek to provoke a strong emotional response. For instance, the most recent headlines on Eyewitness News (a name that is worth noting, as eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable testimony, yet ironically, this name could be said to be one that increases credibility to its viewers as a news organization, as people are more likely to believe something if visual confirmation is established), a primetime news program for the New York and the tri-state area shown on the WABC television network, are, as of November 18, 2008, a series of muggings on the Upper East Side and a robbery in Queens, respectively. On the website, both these news items are described with specific factual information, but the information is also notable because it is so scant. In the case of the muggings, we receive a description of a possible suspect and times that the muggings occurred. The information that is described is done so in a condensed, bite-size format. The main thing a media consumer can take away from these postings is that the definite action of a mugging of two women occurred. However, the isolation of information is something often overlooked in our analysis of news media. We do not receive information about how a robbery or a mugging reflects wider societal trends. By compartmentalizing these events into isolated “incidents,” the American news media makes these problems seem individualized, things that have a small sphere of influence and do not speak to larger societal issues. We receive facts, not context.
More sinister undertones exist as well, because these stories dominate the news media in this country and are reported in a similar style to the manner in which these items were. Therefore, a theme is established of fear – the basic human fear of being violated, robbed of one’s material possessions. This theme is constantly reinforced by the news media, and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. More latent messages are also established in these two news items when looked at in tandem. The victimization of women is another theme that emerges in these headlines. This reinforces stereotypes while reinforcing the message that it is impossible for a woman to be safe at night. This stance can be interpreted in reinforcing existing patriarchal notions and the helpless woman who cannot fend for herself. Fear is a very basic, primal human emotion, and by taking advantage of this fear, the news acts as a manifestation of our fears and casts a paranoia such that when viewing this information, we are less likely to question the content and ask the questions required to make strong and supported causal links. Additionally, coverage of this type is reflective of event-based coverage domineering over idea-based coverage that television lends itself to as a visual medium. William A. Henry, a prominent cultural critic, noted events serve as a “better story than a trend or idea, not only because it is easier to report in video and sound, but because it is more tangible, more unarguably ‘news.'” It is true that events are charged with an immediacy that can be more easily designated as news than coverage of an idea, which proves considerably more difficult. This does not mean, however, that the application of these ideas in our society should, by extension be ignored, fitted into the tidy box of “not news.”
Another problem that contributes to ahistoricism is the popular view of the news media as an infallible institution that is supposed to report the news, free of bias. While this is already an unrealistic goal, the penalty for making mistakes is often very harsh and leads to dismissal of reporters. In the U.S., mistakes seem to harm the credibility of any given news organization. As a result, any mistakes in perception are usually not addressed. To its credit, the print format lends itself more to the open admission of fallibility and corrections; however, for obvious reasons, these are not displayed in prominent view. However, there are exceptions, such as the New York Times apology in April 2008 for not acting as a critical filter of information when reporting news of the military analysts that spread misinformation that led to the War in Iraq. Unfortunately, Solomon states, “many factual errors are never corrected. And corrections are usually inconspicuous, as in a daily paper. This helps to insulate against undermining confidence in the reliability of the news outlet.” Ironically, credibility is reaffirmed when news media abroad, such as the BBC, note mistakes made in broadcasting or facts that are no longer accurate as a story is developing. In the American press, news stations vie against one another for the position of the “most accurate” news or position offered. This presents a delusion that we continue to participate in even though we are, in some form, aware of its existence. It is assumed, for instance, that an “Absolute Truth exists and that journalists are in a position to present this ideal Truth, without distortion or personal bias.” However, all journalism is subjective, and presented, ultimately, by people, who have biases. Our notions of “accuracy” also need to be overviewed. “There are many layers to notions of accuracy and objectivity. The news media are part of the system that fund them as institutions, investors and employees. The division between the news pages and editorial pages is a way to formalize an assumption that is encouraged by the pretense that “news” can be objective — and that assumption increases the power of news to tilt perceptions according to worldviews that dominate the media outlets and other powerful institutions.” Perhaps this ideal continues to be perpetuated because it is psychologically comfortable to believe you know the absolute truth about a certain issue. An overemphasis in presenting the news media as the unequivocal voice of truth may lead to this intolerance of mistakes or changes to the larger sphere of our knowledge and understanding of the world. When news broadcasts do go back in time to reference past events in the United States, it is often to commemorate a major event, such as the Iraq War, or the September 11, 2001 attacks. To an extent, emotional distance is established, however, a nostalgic perspective is more likely to be taken than one that is truly reflective, displaying a critique of the news organization itself in its previous coverage of the event.
Because news coverage is driven by what will garner the most ratings, this consideration heavily affects not only what news items take precedence over others, but also how said news is covered. Most news media is covered in a sensationalist, overdramatic style, as witnessed by the use of charged words in news broadcasts, as well as provocative imagery with strong connotative values. Indeed, as Michael A. Milburn and Anne B. McGrail state in their observations of the news media’s presentation and its effects on cognitive function, “the orientation in the news media toward melodrama reveals a basic fear of ambiguity and real conflict.” It is the fear of exploring complexities that seems to be the main tension that grips our society. Scheibe points out it is a “combination of two things: limited time and/or space,so most news media can’t go into much detail on any story; and the tendency to target the “lowest common denominator” in order to get the largest audience possible. There’s also the perception by the news media, and the media in general, that facts are boring, so better to go with superficial impressions.”
Why do we rely on these superficial impressions? Is it because we are in denial to some extent about our role in the world, as shown by the polarization of the “good/evil” paradigm in the news media, a stance which can easily escalate onto the national level, as seen by our polarization of the Iraqi people as the Iraq War escalated? In our conflicts with other countries, America is always portrayed as a force for good, not only because it is in our interest to do so, but it is also good for morale. Any country that resists cooperation with us or our allies is painted as evil. However, this oversimplification of issues can prove disastrous, as they did in Iraq. We are aware there are problems with crime in urban areas, but due to the lack of contextualization, we cannot infer what socioeconomic factors create a more active backdrop for crime and then work to resolve these issues. This would be a more complex issue to tackle, one that is not immediately “results-oriented” (as in catching a criminal and then letting the system deal with the problem). and would be a departure from the standard news broadcast. We pin the blame on the individual suspects as a way out of critiquing the society itself. But by critiquing our own society, we can find effective and powerful ways to diminish these problems.