On The Media – Biggest Media Errors of 2013, the Never Ending Debate about Benghazi, and More

It is often said that we learn best from our mistakes.  This particular podcast, from NPR’s On The Media, deals firstly with helping us learn from the mistakes of others, specifically the noteworthy media sources of the day.

First discussed is the way that the information we receive through the media is in many cases faulty due to lack of research.  Among the examples cited are the news coverage regarding the Asiana Airlines crash, in which the pilot’s names were incorrectly cited, and controversy regarding the Benghazi attacks of September 11th, 2012, especially due to an interview in which the interviewee gave his story in such a way that it had no correlation to the account which he gave the FBI.

The next topic, brought up by the subject of lack of research, or heavily biased research on the part of major media sources, brought up the interesting point that many news coverage sources cover only the facts which they feel support their “team.”

This was immediately followed by an eye-opening live interview with Luke O’Neill, who points out that with the rise of websites such as Upworthy and Buzzfeed, the legitimacy of many stories found online is in serious question.  He claimed that most of these stories were based in complete falsehood, fabricated only to draw attention and get the public to click on them, generating revenue for the authors.  He was greatly concerned with the future of media as a general industry, stating that these internet stories were signs of lazy journalism, not telling people what they need to or should know, but rather what they want to read.

Following this, the program cut to an interview with Cyndi Lauper, who gave stories and anecdotes from her career in various roles in mass media, from singer, to writer, to actor.

I have to say, when I listened to this podcast, I was nearly continuously bobbing my head in agreement. Given that I was wearing headphones in the financial aid line as I did it, I probably looked more like I was studying the latest electronic dance music than anything class-related.

Just the same, I was relieved to know I was not the only one who had noticed these trends of dishonesty and deception in the media today.  The whole truth seems to become of secondary importance when money is on the line, and dishonest or heavily biased news media, in many of the forms mentioned above, can easily make a quick dollar or two by spouting off something outrageous, funny, cute, or inspiring, regardless of whether it actually happened that way in reality, or even happened at all.  In other cases, even money is not the root cause of unreliable media, but rather simple ignorance or lack of fact-checking.  Reliable news is hard to come by, and even relatively level-headed sources should consistently be taken with a grain or two of salt.

One point mentioned by Luke O’Neill is that even in his own articles, he occasionally finds a story that is just “Too good to check.”  What he meant by this was that some stories are so clearly going to give a profit to the publisher that the risk of checking them and finding them to be false, therefore unethical and, in some more formal circles, illegal to publish, is too great.

Instead, as O’Neill continued to explain, it was far simpler, but so much more damaging to our media and society, to simply publish the story first and ask questions later, putting it online or on air for all to see.  This could easily lead, he claimed, to violence or persecution because of a story that either never happened or was exaggerated.

My head bobbing intensified around this part.  It must have looked like the “drop” in the above-mentioned music.

It seems that it is really only a matter of time until such a thing occurs.  Someone will eventually post something so outrageous and inflammatory (or perhaps mortifyingly cute?) that violence could ensue.  They could claim that Muslims publicly executed the Amish on a farm outside San Francisco, and the exaggerated fears of Shariah law would take over the minds of many, despite the atrocity never having happened and probably never happening in the future.  They could claim that the *insert political party here* opted to let millions of starving infants die in order to line their own pockets, despite it only happening sometimes.  Erm, right.

It may be surprising, however, that even more damaging than direct misinformation is the spin that many media sources put on factual events.  During Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the Mormons (The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints) were spun in seemingly every direction except the factual one by many sources, and alarmingly, the people often believed it all, the misinformation only being discredited by friendly contact with actual members of the religion.  With the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the partisan government took the tragedy like an event to be turned against their political rivals.  When hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the southeast of the country, George Bush took the fall from the democratic party, despite, to my knowledge, the lack of weather-controlling powers associated with the executive government.

The point is, we can’t trust the common sources for news, and it is laughable to give confidence to sources like Upworthy and 9gag for your image of the world around you.  There are so few stories that are given in an unbiased manner that it is very necessary for ordinary citizens, if they wish to remain informed, to use the powers of analysis that they have to pick out the truth from the lies.  If that were common practice, I have no doubt that elections, rallies, and protests would be fewer, and about different things entirely.  What do you think we would protest if our media gave us the absolute truth?

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