As the line between entertainment and news blurs, Americans’ demand for actual facts has diminished in favor of sound bites, sometimes even settling on a meme as actual reporting. In the weeks following the massacre in Sandy Hook, I had a heated conversation with a friend who claimed it was a hoax initiated by the President to catalyze his anti-gun agenda. While presenting my friend with articles and links from respected news sources (NYT, LA Times, The Tribune, etc.) showing his outlandish ideas to be false, he claimed that his source held the actual truth and that all other agencies reporting on it were playing catch-up. His source – a single YouTube video put together not by trained journalists, but by a group of conspiracy theorists.
YouTube is an entertainment site. It’s a great place to watch cat videos, life-hacks, and train wrecks, but increasingly Americans are turning to their preferred media outlet as a catch-all for entertainment and news. Whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or any other app-supported pastime, the news is getting buried under quick-hit flash headlines that are taken at face value by the consumer. This is alarming. We all have a built-in Confirmation Bias and seek to consume “news” that we already agree with. Conservatives watch Fox and Liberals enjoy MSNBC for this reason. Both outlets pander. No surprise there. The issue growing right in front of us is that television, terrestrial or cable, is fighting a dying death against a more powerful technology – the smartphone.
So what can broadcast news outlets do to hang on? When the stations, local or national, get a few moments of our attention, they attempt to emulate what we see on our phones as we sit on the toilet or on the train. Quick headlines with little to zero fact backup and interviews full of lies floated as truth without a hint of push-back from the journalists are becoming commonplace. If one wants to fact-check something, there are a few places to go for unbiased information (factcheck.org, politifact.org, and others) but that requires more effort and, more importantly, a willingness to turn off our embedded confirmation bias. Preparing yourself to learn that your opinion is, in fact, wrong is not easy. No one likes to be misled by their personal choices. We must look inward and demand the truth. Fewer of us do this due to the way we consume our media. It is spoon fed to us by the outlets we choose and the entertainers we follow online. We have become lazy. And when confronted with opposing views, another phenomenon can strengthen the resolve to push back. The Backfire effect.
In 2005, The University of Michigan conducted a study wherein participants were presented with false magazine articles about subjects like the WMDs in Iraq, stem cell research, and tax reform. After the columns had been read, the participants were then presented with the factual articles, laying out the truth. The results showed that not only did the false articles support confirmation bias, but when presented with the facts (WMDs were never found, stem cells don’t come from aborted fetuses, and trickle-down economics has historically never worked), the beliefs of many involved in the study strengthened in the favor of the misinformation. This is the Backfire effect. We believe what we want to believe and when presented with conflicting information, we tend to believe it even harder. Why? It is threatening to be told we are wrong. It hurts.
Our current election cycle is ripe with misinformation on both sides and we should have seen this coming. Yes, blame can be laid at the feet of the technology, but it will move forward either way; there is no stopping it. We must take back the responsibility to be well informed. When I was growing up, the ten o’clock news was a stop-down in every household. So was the morning paper. Our parents got their news from reliable sources – ethical journalists, reporters, and news readers – on a daily basis and there was no need to go looking for a way to fact check or debunk a news organization. They had earned our trust. Now, much of what we consider news is just twisted words stuck on an unflattering picture of a politician put forth by someone with an opinion. And looking for facts is just hard. Please, do the work. The next four years is hanging in the balance.