“We live in an era with a plentitude of information but a paucity of understanding.”
– Joe Nye, JFK School of Government, Harvard University
In the beginning there was Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America," who benefited the public interest nightly by giving the nation a half hour of hard news. Today there is MSNBC, FOX News, and the other 24-hour cable news stations filling the airwaves with sensationalism and commentary passed off as fact.
What we are left with is a dangerously misinformed public. In order to drive public discourse back towards a thoughtful spectrum of opinions, we need to fundamentally rethink how we get our news, and that starts by abandoning the major cable news channels.
Writing about our current 24-hour news, Gareth Sundem says, “While news is limited by the size of an event, a story is limited only by the size of cable news producers' imaginations … Every day the sky is falling, and then, miraculously, we wake up to find that it has not yet fallen.”
For example, watch the clips from CNN's coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing (Begin watching at 1:30).
The need for “breaking news” to feed the beast that is the 24-hour news cycle produces a lot of coverage is “half thought out, half true,” in the words of former television and print journalist Charles S. Feldman, “and lazily repeated from anonymous sources interested in selling opinion and wild speculation as news.”
To fill the news day, networks parade commentary as fact. This is particularly troublesome with networks with a significant political lean, such as MSNBC of Fox News.
Although commentary is essential in helping viewers interpret news reports, it should come as a supplement to a non-opinion-oriented understanding of the story. The range off opinions enabled by free speech and more recently the internet helps create a diverse and dynamic environment for thinking through the issues we face at every level, from individual to international.
The root of the problem we face is twofold. On the one hand media outlets must return to their mandates to serve the public interest. It is after all the public that owns the airwaves, and the FCC is meant to grant licenses to broadcasters with the understanding they will serve the public interest. These networks need to devote time to quality hard news to ensure that as the viewers watch commentary, they have the basis of knowledge required to interpret opinion critically.
On the other hand, the public needs to stop treating pundit opinions as a substitute for critical thinking about the news. We can drive change by supporting those news sources that offer more objective news, while still enjoying commentary.
An example of this is NPR, which receives a lot of criticism for being a left-leaning news source. However, sensationalist and “print then think” news is more of a threat to the existence of quality hard news and an informed public than government funding is. Consider the 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson University Study that found: “All else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all.” The study shows that MSNBC viewers fared only slightly better, and still below the no news group. “On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly.”
While it is impossible for a news organization to be completely unbiased, there is the possibility of resisting bias and distinguishing between commentaries and reporting. Effective journalists can discipline their biases and produce sound balanced news. A commitment to examining a breadth of rationally articulated and carefully challenged interpretations of the day’s news would be a worthwhile contribution to public discourse.
In many ways, NPR has attempted to do just that. PBS remains the most trusted provider of news and public affairs programing, with 40% trusting its programs a “great deal,” compared to second-place Fox and third-place CNN, with 29% and 27% respectively. NPR also received the highest positive response when Americans were asked to rate the fairness of news coverage.
In his column, The Atlantic’s James Fallows explains an instance in which he was discussing partisanship and mentioned that Obama's stimulus plan had received "no Republican congressional votes," when in fact there were no votes from Republican congressmen. NPR refused to air the interview unless he came back into the studio to re-record the segment with the proper explanation.
He writes, “[Those on the right opposed to NPR] would like to suggest that the main way NPR differs from Fox is that most NPR employees vote Democratic. That is a difference, but the real difference is what they are trying to do. NPR shows are built around gathering and analyzing the news, rather than using it as a springboard for opinions. And while of course the selection of stories and analysts is subjective and can show a bias, in a serious news organization the bias is something to be worked against rather than embraced.”
While many cable news organizations “apply a unified political-cultural world view to the unfolding events of the day,” too few programs see news as the end goals. We must do our own research on current issues from a variety of sources to form our own conclusions, before then consulting more opinionated news programs to further our understanding of the implications of the news.
It’s unlikely that sensationalism in news is going to slow down so the burden is on us to get smarter about the information we rely on.