A Physicist in Medicine

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On the media, in brief

I’m a total news junkie. In grad school, when I had nothing research to do, I probably read >100 news articles per day. I have less time now, but if something’s happening, I probably know the details.

It’s no secret that most people think the media is biased. Whether that’s claiming NPR, MSNBC, CNN, the NYT, …, etc. are liberal or that FNC and the WSJ are conservative. While I think that most such characterizations are accurate, I think such labels largely miss the point. Gone are the days of objective reporting, that’s just the way it is. So it’s not very productive to incessantly point out some political bias. The real concern is the lack of transparency, videlicet, presenting opinion as news, claiming no political bias, or, perhaps most importantly, very selective choice of stories to be presented.

The undisputed champion of selective presentation, as so named by your longtime listening blogger, is NPR. Their stories are presented as very convincingly objective and are head and shoulders above almost any other news outlet in term so professionalism in presentation. But, never mind all the undercover stings revealing NPR’s true stripes, you can detect their selectivity yourself with these few questions:

  • For whom does their guest work?
  • What adjectives are they using?
  • What historical comparisons are they making?
  • To whom is the story sympathetic?

After answering these questions, you can be in control of your listening experience, then go on to enjoy the news part of NPR, which I do everyday. The other thing to keep in mind about NPR is that they have absolutely no competition. Bias supporters parrot some nonsense about NPR balancing right-wing talk radio, but this is malarkey because they are two entirely different products, and NPR would hopefully maintain as much. Nevertheless, the absence of competition gives them complete control over the drive time news cycle. The thing for which NPR deserves the most credit is that they have adapted to the Internet age much more successfully than other AV news organizations. The reason CNN is the cellar dweller of cables news and that no one watches the national evening news is that those folk still present the news as if it is the first time their viewers are hearing it, which is almost never the case. NPR recognizes this (and merely tried to make you understand the events from a particular angle)

For a less subtle example of selectiveness, look no further than Ron Paul. If you haven’t heard of him, you probably don’t spend enough time on the Internet and are confirmation of the point.

I don’t have time to structure the rest of this post, so bullet points it is:

  • The media is forever changed because of the Internet, which we all knew, but this is what I consider to be the most important change: print media makes money from advertisements, which are based on subscription numbers, people only pay for subscriptions if (a) they have no choice or (b) the product is good, so print media was successful by making a good product; online news reporting also makes money from advertising, which is based on page views, the surest way to get page views is to create a comment war, so online media will always be controversial in hopes of inciting commenters. The possible upside of this is that the writers might not actually be as dumb as their articles let on, but I rather doubt it. This also explains the onslaught of dumb as #$^@ slideshows.
  • Every article is politicized. Especially in college papers. Pick up a college paper someday and you’ll immediately recognize why adult papers are terrible. The several problems are that: college papers have no standards, everything exists under the auspices of academic freedom; college writers become adult writers about topics that they have not studied; and college students are not taught critical thinking skills so their news analyzing skills suck. So do their writing skills. One only needs to talk to a college admissions counselor or writing professor to learn the dismal state of this art. If you don’t have access to either of those folk, head on over to <yourcity>.cbslocal.com or the website of your local TV news.
  • Reporters are lazy. My (least) favorite line that appears in almost any news article is “so-and-so did not immediately return a call”. This likely means that the reporter purposefully called at an inconvenient time, left a non-descript message, then submitted to press.This is all part of the rush to get their article posted first. It’s no wonder that when big events happen, the story is constantly changing (of course it doesn’t help when the only source keeps changing the story, *cough* Jay Carney *cough* *cough*). Reporters also need a thesaurus. There exist words for “criticized” besides “slammed”. “Criticized” is one such word.
  • Reporters are stupid. This is almost entirely because college reporters go on to become adult reporters, mostly in fields they never studied or understand. Also:
  • Negative news. For all that people complain about the over abundance of reporting on negative events, you’d think there might be a market for positive stories. The media disagrees. Of course, it makes sense that people want to know about bad things, if only to do what they can to avoid them. But the December issue of Time Magazine recounted the top 118 (118?? but scroll down a touch at the link) events of the first decade of the 21st century. 98 of these were negative. How many were positive? 4.
  • Elections! The news media loves to analyze campaign commercials, frequently criticizing the negativity of such things. This is a lot like ESPN hosting debate on the appropriateness of the BCS. Most unsurprisingly, for all the juvenileness of most campaigns, there is no bigger champion of the perpetual election cycle than the media. A billion dollar campaign means a billion dollars in media revenue. Attack ads require responses, cha-ching, etc. Also, see Ron Paul. However, the biggest problem of the media’s coverage of election is the complete destruction of democratic debate. If you’ve seen any of the GOP primary debates this year, or really any debate in the last decade, you know that they are not debates. They are shouting matches to generate applause lines and sound bytes. But it’s not just debates where this is the case, most articles covering elections are committed to the same level of baseness. This is undoubtedly from the reporters’ own inability to think critically about the issues and their desire to drive election away from anything that would produce fewer inane commercials. Two things will greatly improve debates: real-time fact checking (perhaps in the bottom line) and more internet debates independent of the news media.

To recap: most reporters are not worthy of the freedom of press that they enjoy because they either aren’t capable of producing a proper news report or they have nefarious intent in their creation thereof. This is chiefly manifest by their inability to overcome their personal political biases and ineptitude. The media is a business, a corporate one at that, their goal is not to present the news to you, it is to sell advertisements and get page views.

Million-dollar idea for the taking: a(nother) book called Dereliction of Duty about the media since about the mid 1990s that would chronicle every occasion that the media has failed to hold people, mainly politicians, accountable to the public. This would include such things as Congressional insider trading and fraud, WMDs, earmarks, the back room deals that brought about the Affordable Care Act, the complete covering for the corruption and nepotism associated with the stimulus package, and the blackout of war(s) coverage since around…oh…2009.

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