News, Fluff and Damn Fluff

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I use a news aggregator to ping me with breaking news stories. My sources run the gamut from NPR to Fox to CNN to the AP News to The Guardian to DailyMail to Breitbart to Vox. Obviously of these media outlets, NPR, Fox, Associated Press, CNN and the Guardian are what I would call major news outlets because of the size of their audience.

I’ve noticed that Fox’s news feed is out of phase with literally all the other news sources. Yesterday, for example, they had nothing on the gag order affecting the EPA and other institutions except a piece that spotlighted the ”defiance” of the National Park Service for continuing to tweet climate data after being told to muzzle their social media use.

Just now, I got reminded again, of how radically different Fox News coverage is from other media outlets. Three stories came up in swift succession from my news feed: 1) The AP reported that the Trump administration will seek big staff and budget cuts at the EPA. 2) Reuters reported that the State Department suspended refugee resettlement interviews (aka ”vetting” of people seeking asylum here). 3) The AP newswire noted that Mr. Trump is calling for a 20% tax on Mexican imports (this after either he or the president of Mexico or bothcancelled that president’s visit—depends on whom you believe.) 4) Fox News asked ”What’s in a name?” and posted a story about people named Alexa. 5) CNN reported on the tax on Mexican goods.

I went out to several news sites to see what they had on their front pages. NPR was covering the cancellation of the presidential meeting, the EPA gag order, the ”rogue” NPS tweets, and a 140,000 gallon Iowa pipeline leak (third pipeline leak since July that I know of). The Guardian had the first three of those stories, and some other US and international news. Associated Press had those, plus three other stories related to the situation with Mexico.

Then there was Fox. Fox had nothing on the gag orders on their very crowded main page. Even the story about the defiance of the NPS had been pushed off by fresher news. It was replaced by stories like the one about how we can ”Make the border wall a monument to friendship” and a Fox poll that claims most voters feel they’ve achieved the American dream (That was quick—only two months ago, we were led to believe the American dream was dead.), and several stories about animals (an abandoned horse, a murdered eagle, and a clever beagle). There was a red-highlighted link to a list of Mr. Trump’s executive orders so far.

Here’s my takeaway. Not only does Fox News rarely report on stories that are important to the nation’s citizens, when they do report, they fixate on a single detail or aspect of a story, missing the overall picture (aka, burying the lede). They also do something I find particularly destructive—they spin the news to give the reader or viewer a false impression about what the story really was. I’ve mentioned before how they routinely made both the economic news and employment figures during the Obama administration sound as if they were disappointing by using contradictory adjectives and adverbs to describe them (i.e. ”only 217,000 jobs were created” when experts were expecting 150,000, or describing a positive economic showing as ”disappointing” or ”stagnant” or ”lackluster”). Viewers may have gone away with a bleak sense of the American Dream because of the descriptive terms used.

As a writer, I’m here to tell you that adjectives and adverbs can be sneaky. They put images in your head that, in turn, affect your emotional sense of a story. It takes effort and practice to read around them. (For the love of all that is good or holy or human, please try.)

Why is this important?

It’s important because of the way our society has ”siloed” or ”bubbled” such that large clumps of our fellow Americans get all their news from a single source. Fox News claims that it is America’s most trusted news source. There is a reason they make that claim. According to a Pew Research poll, it is because 47% of self-identifying conservatives cite Fox as their main or only news source. Ponder that in light of what is on their website or their shows on a given day. The article goes on to say that

“Far fewer choose any other single source: Local radio ranks second, named by 11%, with no other individual source named by more than 5% of consistent conservatives. “

Self-identifying liberals, progressives or independents spread their acquisition of news out. The Pew article states:

“On the left of the political spectrum, no single outlet predominates. Among consistent liberals, CNN (15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%) all rank near the top of the list.”

While Fox News is the single news source trusted by conservatives (72%),

“… NPR (72%), PBS (71%) and the BBC (69%) – are the most trusted sources among those with consistently liberal political values.”

(Interestingly, NPR’s audience polls at one-third liberal, one-third conservative, and one-third moderate—fairly balanced between the different audiences. Their news programs and articles are, I note, low on adjectives and adverbs.)

What does all this mean?

First, let me tell you what it does not mean. It does not mean that there is never straight-up factual reporting on Fox. There is. But it does not counter what is left out, what is spun, what is blown out of proportion and what is factually untrue in a quest for “eyeballs”. Fact checking organizations such as Politifact have clocked Fox’s statements alleging to be fact at 51% Mostly False to Pants-on-Fire (with plain False the winner at 29%) and its truthfulness at 49% Half to completely True with Half True winning the prize at 19%.

What all this does mean is that there is a significant portion of the American populace that is completely unaware of some major news stories or of the nuances of the ones they do encounter. When the women’s marches happened all over the world with millions of people taking to the streets, our neighbors who watched, listened to, or read only Fox News should be forgiven for believing that it was a relatively small congregation of chubby, elitist, Prius-driving, latte-drinking liberals whose little protest was paid for by ”big abortion money” or George Soros (the bloggers who “broke” that story got a lovely pair of toasted pantaloons for that one). They would be skeptical or even disbelieving if you told them it was a grass roots movement that drew over a million people to DC alone, before you even added in the LA, SF, NY and other abbreviated and unabbreviated metropolises and small towns. They would be surprised to find that other media outlets—apart from the allegedly “liberal” CNN, New York Times and Washington Post—showed evidence of their size.

Moreover, Fox commentators, who are paid to give their opinion, often break stories that later turn out to be in error, but that are never retracted, or are broken with great fanfare and retracted or corrected very quietly. Other news outlets also do this and it, too, creates mirages that we, the viewer, recall as being real.

So, what can any of us do about this?

First, know what’s going on. Get the facts from multiple sources if you can. When listening or reading filter out descriptive terms that are there to engage your emotions. Understand as much as you can about a subject. Then talk. Talk about the news stories that Fox is not covering. Give more information on stories their audience might have heard, but only caught the emotional subtext of. Encourage simple curiosity in those who are puzzled by the fact that they didn’t know the EPA was even under a gag order or why that’s scary or that there’s a larger context in which the National Park Service’s “rogue tweets” exist.

Third time I’ve said this today: Knowledge is power. Spread it around.

oOo

In this day the mysteries of this earth are unfolded and visible before the eyes, and the pages of swiftly appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world; they display the doings and actions of the different nations; they both illustrate them and cause them to be heard. Newspapers are as a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech; they are a wonderful phenomenon and a great matter.

But it behooves the writers and editors thereof to be sanctified from the prejudice of egotism and desire, and to be adorned with the ornament of equity and justice. They must inquire into matters as fully as possible in order that they may be informed of the real facts, and commit the same to writing. Concerning this wronged one, what the newspapers have published has for the most part been devoid of truth. Good speech and truthfulness are, in loftiness of position and rank, like the sun which has risen from the horizon of the heaven of knowledge.— Baha’u’llah, Tablet of Tarazát.

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