There’s something wrong with our country’s media system if you not only have to go to different sources for different opinions, but for different facts too.
In what have been two of the biggest events to capture the nation’s attention this year – the George Zimmerman murder trial and the ongoing government shutdown – if you didn’t read and watch reports from multiple media outlets, pick up different fragments of the truth from each, and then put them all together piecemeal, you didn’t get the full picture. And quite frankly, in the words of Kimberly Wilkins:
“Ain’t nobody got time for that”.
As a result, people who get their news from one network are intractably pitted against people tuning into another because they are not be able to draw from the same reservoir of facts.
Take just one example of this media-induced polarization from the Zimmerman trial. An important factor in speculating about whether Zimmerman’s actions were rooted in racism was determining what his relations with African Americans were like before the incident. In his late night segment on Fox News, Sean Hannity cited the fact that Zimmerman “took a black woman to his prom” and “mentored black children in his home” to reach the rhetorical conclusion of, “does that fit the profile of a racist?” In fairness to any Fox News viewer, if that were all of the information available, I would be inclined to agree with Hannity.
However, viewers of the increasingly popular online media network The Young Turks (TYT) received this information about the same issue in an impassioned rant by Cenk Uygur: “a younger female cousin said that in the family they constantly had racist talk where Zimmerman’s mom for example would often talk derisively of African Americans.”
Regardless of which pieces of evidence are more convincing, both outlets should be condemned for cherry-picking only the information that fit their narrative and preventing their viewers from reaching an informed decision based on all of the available facts. Advocating an opinion based on the dismissal of crucial information on the national news stage, where millions of people are relying on accurate reporting to form opinions and influence policy-making, is unconscionable.
The damage that misinformation inflicts on the country, particularly in the form of partisan polarization that now deadlocks Capitol Hill, is becoming more and more validated by psychological studies, such as “When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions” by Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan. The findings suggest that once a political opinion is formed, contradicting information, even if it is true, only makes people cling more fervently to their initial opinion.
A Tale of Two Shutdowns: Comparing the Coverage of Fox News and MSNBC
The type of cherry-picking that tainted media reports of the Zimmerman Trial has continued with coverage of the current government shutdown.
Fox News, in line with Tea Party Republicans’ efforts to downplay the impact of the shutdown, relabeled the situation as a “Slimdown”, and reported only on the seemingly trivial impacts of the funding stoppages. Fox News published articles about how Hollywood production studios would now have a tough time obtaining permits to shoot in national parks and how attraction closures would throw a kink in people’s travel plans, as if to insinuate that the shutdown was only causing minor inconveniences for individuals who would survive just fine anyway. To be fair, they did squeeze in one very short article on how union workers in St. Louis were being hurt.
Meanwhile, MSNBC has published a series of articles more likely to tug at the heartstrings, in line with the Democrat’s efforts to demonize Republicans as callous ideological crusaders responsible for people’s hardships. One article, titled “Head Start Pre-Schoolers Sent Home Thanks to Shutdown”, reported on 770 children in Alabama who could not attend school because of the lack of funding. Another article, “The poorest of the poor’ lose their welfare checks”, explains how thousands of struggling families in Arizona will not be receiving their October welfare checks.
Most people do not have the time to vigilantly gather information from multiple news sources and sew the facts together in order to figure out what they should think of the shutdown – nor should they have to. The highest goal of any media source should be to provide the most comprehensive picture of an event, and any opinion added on top of that is fine as long as all of the facts are there. In reality, we have become a country divided by the outlets from which we get our news, unable to see eye to eye and resolve debates because each half doesn’t know what the other half knows. But as long as this style of media exists, it becomes incumbent on each of us to remain open-minded and not rely on a single source of news.