Monday, January 27, 2020

The Editorial: Objectivity, Existentialism, and the Burden of Consumer Choice

Last week, I discussed journalism and the impossible modern standard of "objectivity."

This week, for one of my classes, we had the following prompt:

Please write an 800-word editorial on the importance of media literacy to better enable news consumers to distinguish between "fake news" items, blatantly partisan and biased news sources, and mainstream news stories that still must be critically examined and analyzed rather than taken merely at face value.

800 words isn't nearly enough for me to parse out this issue. My last post, of course, completely ignored purposeful fake news and blatant propaganda. There's so many moving parts about how news is made and how people consume it. Bias has to take into account socioeconomic factors, rural v. urban communities, sexual and racial factors... you could write a whole book on bias and how it affects journalism. "Media literacy" is not a simple thing. I am inclined to write prescriptive editorials that offer solutions, but there's no real solution to eliminating bias or propaganda. Some people will always distrust the news. And honestly, the news reflects the people who consume it, so really, maybe fake news is what people want. Who are we to deny the consumer what they demand? News that enrages also engages, and people don't want to be informed so much as they want to be entertained and to feel something.

I wasn't really thrilled with my end product because what I wrote sounded very hopeful and also puts a lot of trust in the average joe.  I don't think the average person is fantastic at identifying and acting on their own self-interests.  I guess it's wishful thinking, that we should have confidence in the general public to educate themselves and consume what is best for them.  The question of where we draw the line between personal, individual choice and a "nanny state" that dictates what people are allowed to do is a moral and philosophical debate that you could write another damn book on, and it leaves me feeling unsettled, because I don't really believe in "benevolent control" but also don't really trust people to do the right thing.  As an existentialist I guess I'm inclined toward giving people as much freedom as possible, but with the awareness that they're gonna fuck up.

The original draft of my essay was actually just a perfect re-write of Albert Camus' "The Stranger."

Anyway, here's my best effort, in 800 words, to offer up a solution. Of course, if such an easy solution existed, then it would have already been discovered by someone more educated and experienced than I. Ultimately, writing this took a long time and really challenged me; I got pretty mired in a lot of different articles and my takeaway was that no one is quite sure where journalism is going next. I think one of the biggest conclusions we can draw is simply that we don't know how to address people's distrust of the news, and that the media landscape is rapidly evolving into something entirely new that we haven't seen before. It's only with the benefit of hindsight we'll be able to really analyze what's happening, and why, and how we should respond to it.

The Editorial
(presented without memes)

Since 1990, American obesity rates have climbed more than 10%. At the same time, American trust in its mass media to provide accurate news coverage has dropped to historic lows, with only one-third of Americans expressing confidence in the news. What do these things have in common? Only that no single, simple prescriptive solution exists. But efforts to combat rising obesity rates have offered some insight into why “fake news” is so hard to address, and some of the initial steps that can be taken to slow its growth.

It’s unlikely that fake news can ever be completely eradicated, or that people’s trust in their media can ever be fully restored. The impact of fake news, however, can be reduced, and perhaps, with time, some amount of public trust can be regained. And the first step is to start labeling the news so Americans know precisely what they’re consuming.

Efforts to combat the obesity epidemic have resulted in a plethora of labeling initiatives: the FDA regulation that will put calorie labels on menus, for example, or the re-design of nutritional labeling on store-bought products. Ultimately, actions like these were designed to educate, encourage, or exemplify healthy lifestyles. But obesity rates have continued to climb. Ultimately, it is up to the discretion of the consumer to decide what to eat and how to behave. In a free, capitalist society, people are welcome to choose to consume what they want, and manufactured foods are designed to be tempting. Heavily processed and saturated with oil, sugar, and fat, the food in American grocery stores is engineered to make it desirable.

In the digital age, where profitability can be measured in clicks, news is likewise engineered to be desirable and tempting. “Clickbait” is one such example of “junk food” media: flavorful and alluring, yet nutritionally lacking. According to a survey done by the Pew Research Center, about 70% of Americans have used Facebook. And more than half of Americans who use Facebook claim to have seen “fake news” there. But just as Americans won’t give up junk food, Americans won’t give up Facebook, and the ease of distributing news there - real or fake - means that it’s unlikely that fake news will ever be eliminated from the platform.

Yet Facebook has taken steps to try to help people identify fake news. Since December of 2016, it has employed third-party fact-checkers like Snopes, Politifact, and to identify fake news stories. Stories posted on Facebook often appear with a second link beneath them to a fact-checking site that proclaims the story as false or misleading.

The labeling of news as “fake” does not stop it from being disseminated, no more than the caloric labeling of food prevents people from buying it. It does, however, educate people, allowing them to make a more informed decision on their own behalf. Freedom of choice, and freedom of speech, have always been strongly-held American ideals; labeling fake news, satire, or propaganda gives people the freedom to read and distribute it while making its bias more transparent.

But does it work?

Consider tobacco consumption. Cigarette use in America peaked in the early 1960s. In 1966, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act went into effect, requiring a “conspicuous” warning label on packs of cigarettes. Every year since 1975, cigarette consumption per capita in the United States has dropped. Today, less than 20% of Americans smoke, compared to about half in the 1960s.

Cigarettes and junk food are here to stay; the consumers demand it. Fake news, likewise, isn’t going anywhere. But labeling junk food to make it clear to consumers what they are buying allows them to make better decisions, if they choose to. And FDA labeling doesn’t only target junk food, but all food, allowing buyers to compare and contrast. Having third-party fact checkers examine and label news story as truthful, false, satirical, partially true, biased, or lacking in context is one way for people to have a better idea of the validity of the news they consume.

In the last five years, the growth of obesity rates in America has slowed. Educating people about what’s in the food they eat did not eliminate the problem, but it did appear to attenuate it. Likewise, labeling cigarettes as harmful, combined with public awareness campaigns, decreased consumption. In a free society that values a consumer’s right to choose, harmful products are difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate, and there will always be some portion of the population that chooses to consume the product, regardless of its effects. Thus, fake news, like junk food or cigarettes, is here to stay.

No single, simple, prescriptive solution exists to the fake news crisis, just as there is no single, simple prescriptive solution to obesity. But third-party fact checking and the clear labeling of news is a good place to start. And initiating the conversation about what constitutes “fake news” in the first place allows consumers to hold themselves, and each other, more accountable for the choices they make. Labeling the news with a tag from a third-party fact-checker ensures that the decisions people make are informed ones.

People don’t trust the news. Maybe it’s time for the news to start trusting the people.

 "Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?" - me, while writing this
Also literally another Camus quote.

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