By Charlie Mitchell
There’s a lot more “media” than there used to be, but the truth about any given situation is harder to find. We are assaulted with information, but the information is less reliable.
In some ways, that’s counterintuitive. For instance, if there were more food, it follows there would be less hunger.
But now that we graze for information during all our waking hours – as opposed to getting a scheduled “news fix” from 30 minutes of TV news, weather and sports or sitting down and taking the rubber band off the newspaper plunked into our driveways – it’s simply not safe to believe anything the first time we see, read or hear it.
Some of this can be attributed to hoaxing.
It has become really popular to trick the press, to concoct a story so weird that normally calm, skeptical editors and producers rush to be first announcing an astonishing situation. News consumers, if they remembered the faked “child floating alone across the Rockies in a helium balloon” story from 2009, likely waited a while, changed the channel or sought verification after being exposed, earlier this month, to a similarly unexpected headline: “Pope quits.”
What could be called media manipulation is also increasing.
A great deal of thought, planning, negotiation and calculation preceded the decision to have cyclist Lance Armstrong confess to doping (to the extent that he did) in an interview with Oprah Winfrey as opposed to, say, Morley Safer.
Strategic decisions are carefully made by publicists, politicians and their handlers on where and how to provide information. It’s not nearly as casual as it seems. Agents and agencies who recruit and book guests work in a competitive field. To be succinct, offering to provide a hot tidbit is almost always helps land a client an interview, a spot on a talk show.
It wouldn’t take an in-depth study to discern, for example, that former Gov. Haley Barbour viewed the state and nation as a tool to be used strategically, to be managed for maximum effect (at least until the pardon thing blew up on him).
The very existence of the Internet enhances the ability to be anonymous. There is no accountability for anything “jimmyjofromkokomo” posts or tweets, yet jimmyjo’s comments may “go viral” or be quoted on CNN. Even if jimmyjo is a lobbyist or specialist in opinion management, a bogus tweet can be retweeted so many times and so fast that people around the world can be exposed to a total falsehood in a matter of minutes.
Media companies have always wanted to be first. That’s not new. What is new is that images captured and transmitted by cell phone cameras can be printed or aired as events happen or almost as they happen. Seriously. Chelyabinsk, in Russia’s Ural mountains, has more than 1 million residents, but who had heard of it before the meteor impact? That chunk of rock had been flying through space since before recorded time. If it had gotten to Earth a few years ago, the story might have been a small item on page 17. But with the video, billions became eyewitnesses.
The same speed and technology allows live coverage as stories such as mass shootings and manhunts evolve. But the conjecture offered by reporters as well as authorities is almost always deeply flawed, if not completely wrong.
Bias is another factor. Publications have always had “leanings” reflected in many ways, including what the editors chose to report. It’s not shocking that front pages of USA Today and The New York Times have different stories, mainly because they seek to serve different audiences. But “news” networks have become so completely partisan in their political coverage that an argument could be made that some shows are actually unpaid commercials for Democrats or for Republicans. They don’t engage in idle spin. They engage in purposeful distortion.
So what’s a consumer to do? What does a person who simply wants to know what happened, who wants to know “the truth” to do?
The simple answer is not comforting: Work harder to find it.
We live in an impressive era of global communication. In a matter of seconds, we can use our phones during a college baseball game to find out who’s at the plate at Dudy Noble Field and the tally of balls and strikes. But when we hear or read, “Tot aloft alone in balloon over Rockies” or “Pope quits,” we really never know whether to believe it or not.
The speed, quantity and availability of information has increased exponentially. Reliability of that information has gone in the other direction.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.