The way news travels is no accident
by Rob Yates
LPNC Communications Director
Comic by Noah Zenger
Media is designed to stoke fear and sow division. Fortunately, we are able to ignore it.
Go to any major media source and do a quick scan of the headlines. This test applies to individual sources, like Fox News or the NY Times, as well as amalgamations of other news sources, like MSN dot com. Count the number of headlines that are designed to create tension or spark anxiety. Then count how many announce some sort of positive development, relief, or uplifting news. The disparity is chilling.
This phenomenon is not the sole purview of news on the national stage. Check out any local NC state or city news site or Twitter feed. See how many times the word "breaking" appears, or some derivative, placed strategically and deliberately to trigger people's visceral fight-or-flight response and drive more clicks and extended lingering on that site.
News is a commodity
Media outlets have battled each other for market share supremacy since corner store readership and annual delivery subscriptions were the prime metric for daily newspapers. As the airwaves became the dominant vehicle for the distribution of information, first through radio and then television, ratings were the driving force motivating news agencies, as ratings equaled advertising dollars.
This model was hypercharged with the rise of the 24-hour news networks. The public-facing product backed by massive corporate conglomerates had to continually convince potential viewers that they had a better product than other channels, and also that it was necessary to keep watching.
To accomplish this, a model emerged based on quick soundbites implying urgency. Warnings lights flashed, alarms sounded, and intense messaging triggered actual anxiety at the prospect of missing a report. This approach, of consistently outdone hyperbole, proved so effective that it spread to sports, pop culture, and even weather reporting.
An unfortunate consequence of this anxiety-inducing marketing model for the news is that, as viewership settled around nebulous "right" and "left" political persuasions, people began to view anyone on the other side as a potential enemy.
Certainly, this is not to imply that political polarization is a recent phenomenon. Rather, while the bulk of the vitriolic political rhetoric historically ebbed and flowed around major election cycles, we found ourselves immersed in "reporting" that sought to present every snippet or sound bite as life-or-death important. (I know this itself sounds hyperbolic. There is not enough room to fully explain here, but I have written on this in detail if anyone is interested).
The internet as a news source
Now we are faced with a news model where the internet is by far the primary method of information distribution. Manifestations range from classic media websites, to social media, to podcasts, and encompasses every other variation of sharing information at the speed of light at our disposal. This drives multi-faceted outcomes.
Subscription-based services for journalists and content creators who value truth and nuance have exploded in popularity, showing that some modicum of sanity remains in our national discourse. In contrast, bad information, lies, viral clips lacking context, and even ideological purity tests have all found fertile soil in a world where those with ill intent can say most anything without facing direct consequence, and those with pure intentions acting in good faith and pursuing truth suffer punishment for deviating from approved messaging.
To add to this, the government, including federal law enforcement agencies, are actively engaged in controlling the narrative spread online. Our tax dollars go to throttling free speech and paying professional rabble rousers like "Brooklyn Dad Defiant" and "JoJofromJerz," who serve only one function - to divide people around political ideology and further a government narrative.
To make matters worse, advertising dollars now come from metrics like clicks and the average time per user on a site. With an exponentially larger pool of competitors, those information peddlers who cannot distinguish themselves based on quality or competence instead push the most egregious distortions of the truth in the pursuit of fear-mongering for followers.
For example, late in 2022 I read a headline in a local city paper, "Child Deaths from COVID in NC Increase by 140% Over Last Year." The article itself didn't give the number of covid-related deaths. It talked about anecdotal reports of doctors concerned about strained health systems, it talked about the importance of getting your children vaccinated, and it talked about how dangerous covid was to children under 18 as proven by the increase in deaths not actually reported in the article.
Technically the headline was accurate. Seven children had died with covid in the first 12-month period covered, and ten in the second 12-month period, roughly a 140-percent increase. In fact, total deaths under 18 related to covid in North Carolina since the pandemic started: 31. Again, that's total. That barely registers statistically. But fear-mongering around covid was the acceptable position to take, and so that's what was being pushed by news agencies at all levels who depend on advertiser dollars and feel the pressure from government-backed harassment campaigns.
National news is mostly a waste of time, excepting some entertainment value. The tactics adopted by large news organizations remain effective, however, and local state, county, and city news affiliates have adopted these methods, stoking fear and driving polarization.
The good news is that all we need to do is ignore the fear-mongering messaging. It really is that simple. Instead, use that time and energy to go make change where you can actually have a meaningful impact. In this newsletter, we have contributions from people like Joshua Glawson, who is looking for assistance in visiting designated social areas in cities around NC as a way to combat the ABC tyranny. Or Eric Rowell, who is holding local politicians' feet to the fire, demanding that they practice what they preach. Or our very own Phil Jacobson, who brings some common sense to the Ukraine war funding discussion.
We have so many places where volunteers can do wonderful things, help people, and make the world a better place. Turn off the news, and go to your next county affiliate meeting. I promise, you will be happy you did.
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