Media Stupid: How We Don’t Understand Bias and How it’s Making Us Ignorant

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Back in November when the Romney vs. Obama campaign was still fresh, I had the following conversation with a friend from high school who was asking her friends to comment on whether or not they were voting for Obama (the top comment is mine and the comments with a name omitted are hers):

  • ROMNEY/RYAN 2012! I don’t want to stay a college student in the Obama economy. I want to have work one day instead of unemployment.
    November 6, 2012 at 2:51pm · Like
  •  U can stil do that Obama wont stop yeah and plus think about hmm taxes ROMNEY wat it up the roff so the rich ppl could do more less
    November 6, 2012 at 2:54pm · Like
  • Arianna  Obama has done close to nothing to ensure that I’ll have work. His policies have all but wiped out the middle class. And Romney won’t make rich people do less. Romney’s plan would eliminate tax increases and cut wasteful spending. Anyone who tells you Romney favors rich people is just lying.
    November 6, 2012 at 3:08pm · Like · 1
  • Zach  obama cuts military,jobs,etc.makes obama care a law.when its supposed to be covered by taxes.puts trillions moth into debt than bush put in 2 terms hmm.obama gives everyone welfare soo many ppl on welfare is not good.thats why ppl want him in
    November 6, 2012 at 4:38pm via mobile · Like
  •  True but whats her name Mia love want to make thing ten time worse and she is working with mitt so that she can put are lifes in danger cause she dont care anout the harm of ppl she just cares about having other ppl braking more laws and not protecting them
    November 6, 2012 at 4:48pm · Like
  • Arianna  What?! Mia Love’s not even running in the same election as Mitt Romney. She’s just got his support. All of the ads you’re seeing saying she doesn’t care about peoples’ lives are paid for by her competition. They exaggerate the truth so that Mia Love can lose and the other guy can win.
    November 6, 2012 at 4:51pm · Like
  • according what mitt says she was
    November 6, 2012 at 4:51pm · Like
  • Arianna  No. She’s running for a Utah House of Reps. position. They’re both Republican so she just got his face in her ads. That’s really the only relationship between the two. She’s just been saying she wants to cut spending on certain divisions of the police force and Jim Matheson’s campaign has been running ads saying that she’s endangering everybody — which is not really true. He’s just doing it so she can sound bad and lose. Does that make sense?
     
     
    Note the highlighted portion of our conversation. You’ll need a bit of background information: 
     
    Last year, Utah’s District 4 had one of the bloodiest and most expensive ad campaigns ever run on Utah televisions. Jim Matheson was running against Mia Love, and they were both ruthless in their attacks against the other, taking sentences out of context and plastering them on our screens every few seconds as if to hammer the truth of these sentences in our brains. The girl I had this conversation with was talking about one specific ad, where Jim Matheson criticized Mia Love for wanting to decrease the amount of money given to the police force. According to his ads, that “endangered all of us.” My friend took that last phrase, “endangered all of us,” and went further in her statements by combining all of the Mia Love ads she had seen which bragged that Mitt Romney supported Mia Love. In her mind, that equated to: Mia Love wants us all in danger. Mitt Romney supports her, so obviously he does, too. 
     
    I was shocked by how ignorant her assumptions were. Shocked. Not only did she base her political decisions on a very unidirectional ad, which was obviously built to discredit Mia Love as an opponent, but she seemed blissfully unaware that Mia Love wasn’t even running in the district she lived in, and could therefore have no dramatic influence on her personal safety. 
     

    Recently, I’ve thought about that experience, and it has caused me to wonder about how badly we are educated in regards to the media we consume. We struggle to reason on our own, and we don’t know how to discern when the news or the ads we intake are obviously biased. These two handicaps lead to an alarming amount of public ignorance and intolerance.

    So, what are we doing as a nation to combat that? Well…very little. Media bias got attention when we were middle schoolers being taught how something as dangerous as a cigarette could sell so much. That was about the extent of it. We were taught practically nothing about campaign bias or news bias. We probably should have connected the dots, but many of us did not because we were not led to the connection. We must be aware, though.

    Here are some things I’ve discovered that I think everybody should realize and be aware of:

    Commercials will never be void of bias. 
    It’s just that simple. Whenever you see an ad for dishwasher detergent, a car, beauty supplies, or a political candidate, you are watching a company’s desperate attempt to get you to buy their product. They are going to completely disregard what their product might lack in order to convince you what their product has. How much money or how many votes do we throw away without knowing all of the facts? Let’s refer to the cigarette example. Given, doctors didn’t fully realize the dangers of cigarettes, but still. Check out this ad:

    Do you see this? Knowing what you know now about lung cancer and gum disease, isn’t it pretty ridiculous to imagine that cigarettes were sold under the illusion that they made us smarter? That they made us scientists and educators? We might have not known back then that they could be so damaging to us, but we do now, and the great thing about having the Internet at our fingertips is that we can instantly know if a product is good for us or not. We should never believe everything a commercial tells us until we do our research.

    This applies to political ads, too. Take the following ad from the Obama campaign in 2008:

    What did this ad tell us? Look at the colors. They tell us that Barack Obama is patriotic, that he can be both aggressive in fighting for the American people and that he can restore peace to Washington. Look at the word hope. Hope is evocative. It says something different for different people. It really says nothing at all, but it can never be seen as a negative. Look at his eyes. Looking upward, as if to the future. This ad literally didn’t have to say anything at all to convince people to champion Obama.

    In the Love vs. Matheson campaign, one line Jim Matheson loved to exploit was Mia Love’s infamous “I would love to get rid of the Department of Education” line. Watch him do it here:

    Knowing what we know about ads, what should we do about it?

    First: ask yourself if this ad is relevant to you. If it is or if you don’t realize it isn’t, then you may be more likely to believe its claims.

     
    Second: ask yourself where this ad came from and if it is reliable. Because it came from Mia Love’s opponent, it may not be. 
     

    Third: consider the lines used in context. Go look up Mia Love’s speech instead of assuming that that one line defines her whole position. Always read things in context so that commercials can’t trick you.

    The Internet reflects you, and when it doesn’t, it hates you. 
    I happened to express my opinion on something the other day on my Facebook page, and immediately following that, I received an onslaught of comments in support of what I had said and one very outspoken opinion against what I had said. The solitary individual opposing what I said got really frustrated with me and demanded to know why we “ganged up on” them. The sad fact of the matter is that social media automatically creates an arena for that to happen in.

    Think about this. Facebook only shows you the updates of friends who you consistently interact with. Generally, we consistently interact with friends who agree with us. We hit “like” to voice our assent, our approval, our love. It’s much harder to disagree with someone online, as you have to comment, and because disagreement often comes off abrasively in text, we often get defensive when our opinions evoke critical responses.

    Think about Facebook’s graph search function. It allows you to immediately connect with people who think like you do by searching for things like “people who live in Utah and like rock climbing.” Think about ads. Facebook gives you exactly the types of ads that cater to your desires, and Facebook isn’t the only site that does this. The entire Google search engine functions by connecting you with the things you like. Think of YouTube making recommendations, Amazon’s post-purchase suggestions: you may like these titles. The Internet caters to our viewpoints in a way that is both comfortable and familiar to us, but also quite damaging in terms of our exposure to new ideas.

    Because the Internet tends to cater, exploring viewpoints outside of your own can also be quite damaging.

    Take, for example, tumblr. I was on tumblr. for quite some time before I realized that I was not welcome there. I don’t identify as a feminist, a gay “rights” supporter, or a liberal, but tumblr. is buzzing with those things and very hostile toward anyone who does not associate with them. Case in point: I read a thread started by a girl who simply posted a picture of herself with a razor, telling feminists to get over the patriarchal oppression crap and shave their legs because leg hair is gross. Within hours, that post was shared thousands of times, that girl was verbally abused, and she was eventually bullied off of tumblr. by feminists and feminist supporters. I was sickened. But that stuff happens all the time. Dawn Hawkins of the organization Morality in Media received hundreds of death threats after posting an anti-pornography video on YouTube, and it was just because people disagreed.

    Most recently, I read a NY Times article talking about Mormons who had found information about their faith on the Internet and left the church because of it. You know what the Internet is also very hostile towards? Mormonism. It hurts me that members of my faith would believe information that was shared with the intention of discrediting their religious beliefs.

    The lesson to be learned through all this is that you must take everything you read online with a grain of salt, because it, too, comes from very opinionated sources. We must not isolate ourselves from differing opinions, but we must also not gorge ourselves on opinions that blatantly attack and deride our own beliefs or else we will find ourselves stripped from us, too.

    Modern journalism is much more biased than you might think. 
    The last point I would like to make today is one that I have personal experience with. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be the female Walter Cronkite, Carl Bernstein, or Bob Woodward. That was my dream. 

    But, like many things, I was disillusioned by that dream. Let me tell you one reason why. 

    Good journalism functions on the premise that a reporter does not put their opinions and personal bias into their stories. If you are opinionated about something, you should definitely not write a news article about it (part of the reason why I left journalism was because I was opinionated about everything). 

    This is all well and good, you say, but we’re human. We’re automatically designed to have opinions about things. How is it possible to be unbiased? 

    I’m arguing that it isn’t. 

    Let me teach you a story about angles. Having worked for several news organizations, the phrase I most often heard was, “What’s your angle going to be?” 

    An angle is a perspective. One perspective is the head-on perspective, which, by definition, isn’t an angle at all. For example, I could write a story about the Slurpee on my desk. If I were to write about that Slurpee, I’d say, “Arianna’s Slurpee has green stripes on the cup with a code at the bottom and a red straw sticking up from the top.” That would be boring, wouldn’t it? 

    Enter modern journalism. 

    We don’t want to be boring as journalists. Our jobs depend on our readers, and if our readers aren’t interested in what we have to say, we aren’t going to sell our papers. When you work for a newspaper, you are competing with every other news organization in the world to see whose news gets the most readership, who can tell the same story the best. Even at the local level, this is true, which is why the question, “What’s your angle?” gets asked so many times. 

    If I want to make my Slurpee story worth reading, I want a unique angle. Maybe when I was getting my Slurpee, the attendant at the desk wiped her nose with her fingers and then manhandled my cup. Immediately, the real story goes from “this is my Slurpee” to “this 7-11 employee was totally unsanitary.” Within seconds I have avoided the real point to focus on the habits of an individual and sensationalize them. Even though it’s just one employee, my story automatically gives off the impression that all 7-11 employees are unsanitary, a much more interesting line of thought than the line about my Slurpee.

    Let’s take that example and turn it into a much greater, more relevant example: the Trayvon Martin case and ensuing riots. I don’t know if you know this, but people are literally rioting over the outcome of this trial. And why? We all know the outcome of the trial. The jury found George Zimmerman guilty of self-defense only, based on evidence. Then why are people so angry? They don’t know Trayvon personally (most of them don’t, anyway). They don’t know Zimmerman personally. All they know of comes from the news. So if all they know of comes from the news, which is supposed to be unbiased, why are so many people already swayed in one direction? What were news organizations saying about the shooting when it happened? Let’s look at the headlines (summarized angles) and lead lines alone, shall we?

    Justice Department Investigation Is Sought in Florida Teenager’s Shooting Death

    The Cruel Fate That Came to a “Normal Kid,” Trayvon Martin

    Trayvon Martin’s Death: A Timeline of Tragedy

    Gunman’s Account of Beating by Teenager Is Detailed

    A 17-year-old black high school student, Trayvon Martin, was tragically shot and killed by a racist in Florida.
     

    Slain Teenager’s Parents Appear on Capitol Hill

     

    Trayvon Martin’s Shooter Launches Website to Help With Legal Fees

     

    Bail hearing set for shooter of Florida teen Trayvon Martin

     

    Shooter of black Florida teen arrested, charged with murder

     

    A Day in Court and a New Lawyer for Defendant in Martin Case

     
    Trayvon’s Mother: Encounter Was An Accident, Shooting Was Not
     


    Are you seeing this? Not one of the headlines I looked through mentioned George Zimmerman by name. He is the defendant, the shooter, the racist, and the gunman. I don’t know if you realize this, but psychologically, that does a number on a person and who they choose to side with. All of the articles I scanned had a picture of Trayvon, but not Zimmerman. While any death of a child is truly a tragedy, the media managed to paint this picture of a slaying with no motive. With no real motive, what’s the first conclusion that will be jumped to? Racism. 


    What angle is a journalist going to take when it comes right down to it? The least talked about. It’s not the fact that it was a shooting, but that the victim was black, a minority. They knew nothing about the case, but their headlines and their stories scream that they know everything. If the truth be told, they only picked a side to focus on. You don’t get to see any of the other sides. 


    Journalism today is what I like to call “publicity stunt” journalism. Any angle that could get more readers is considered worthwhile, even if it’s not fair. And some journalists choose their angles based on their own personal motivations. If I hate Stand Your Ground laws and I don’t want to show how much I hate them in my writing, I’m going to write about Trayvon Martin’s childhood. Immediately, I’m demanding sympathy from people. Just like that. 


    That is why you must be incredibly careful when you watch or read news. It is NEVER going to cover every side, because these days, it’s not a journalist’s job to do that. 


    In Conclusion 
    What I wish I could have told my friend months ago is that she needs to educate herself better on media and how media convinces us to think one way or the other. We need to teach each other that, because schools aren’t doing it, and heaven forbid the media starts doing it. 


    If we want to be politically and socially smart, then we must be media smart. 

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2 comments

  1. Take a look at these examples from the media:

    Deaf Mute gets New Hearing in killing

    Grandmother of Eight makes Hole in One.

    Police begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

    Men Recommend More Clubs for Wives

    Tuna Biting Off Washington Coast

    Man Held Over Giant L.A. Bush Fire

    Traffic Dead Rise Slowly

    Milk Drinkers Are Turning to Powder

    Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case

    Two Convicts Escape Noose; Jury Hung

    Doctor Testifies in Horse Suit (All examples from Anguished English by Richard Lederer)

    What confuses me is that people DO realize they should NOT take these media gems LITERALLY.

    So, then the question is…why take political attack adds seriously?

    And I am confident in the ensuing years you now know why racism is assumed in such cases.

    Even President Obama spoke of it on July 19, 2013: “There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me—at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”

    Racist assumptions have caused many an unnecessary minority death.

    In your own neck of the woods…we have this:

    When a resident of Summit Creek (now Smithfield) found his horse missing, he accused a young Shoshone fishing in nearby Summit Creek of having stolen the animal. Robert Thornley, an English immigrant and first resident of Summit Creek, defended the young Indian and testified for him. Nonetheless, a jury of locals convicted him and hanged him for stealing the horse. Local history recorded the Shoshone’s name as Pugweenee. Later information reveals that Pugweenee is the Shoshone word for “fish” and so the man may have been saying, “Look at my fish,” or “I was just fishing.”- A back ground incident to the Bear River Massacre

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