Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dealing with the truth, journalistic integrity and the world of "choose your own reality"

yesterday I stumbled across a pair of articles that I thought intersected nicely.

First, I came across this article on The Backfire Effect.  I suggest you read it, its food for thought.  The core idea of the article is that presenting conflicting evidence to folks with a belief based upon faulty evidence, heresay, rumor, faith, conspiracy, etc...  doesn't convince the believer otherwise.  It merely reinforces that belief.

This shouldn't be a shock to anyone who has had the pleasure of hanging out with a conspiracy theorist.  Suggesting that 9/11 was not an inside job just makes you a sucker, fool and a patsy (or, in a worst case scenario, ONE OF THEM).  But it doesn't need to be the case that one bring up something as inflammatory as 9/11 conspiracies or as ridiculous as Hitler-UFO-JFK conspiracy theories.  Our everyday politics hinge on this entrenching of our beliefs.

Surely it can't be that all conservative beliefs are statistically and factually correct while all opposing liberal beliefs are wrong.  And surely it cannot be that all liberal beliefs are statistically and factually correct while all conservative beliefs are wrong.  Its not even a question of a "happy medium" somewhere between the two.  Occasionally, someone is going to be wrong.  One policy is going to reduce teen pregnancy and one is not, and statistics can help us figure this stuff out (anecdotes, while moving, are not hugely useful).

I know that I have knee-jerk reactions to all sorts of things.  The article points out that this seemingly innate desire to argue and fight over what we already "know" or are comfortable "knowing" is essentially part of human nature, and our responses likely have their roots in evolutionary biology (see: something I'll readily accept because I don't find the idea that we're fancy apes at all offensive).  But tell me that we've got all kinds of fossil fuel in shale, and I'll raise a skeptical eyebrow and quote you science I vaguely remember from middle school ( I honestly haven't read up on this issue very much).

This is basically how I see you people.  Well, me.  You're more like hobo chimps.

Those who've been around for the past, ahem, 8 years know I've made no bones about my dislike of the modern format of cable news, leading to my abandonment of the medium about three or four years ago.  Which wasn't much fun, because I used to watch the news for hours at a time.

I found this article (ostensibly from Associated Press) a bit baffling.  In it, the writer talks about how Cooper's newfound format has seen a 46% uptic in viewership ever since he stumbled upon this crazy new format where he (a) apparently checks facts, (b) isn't particularly partisan and (c) asks follow up questions based upon the stories spun by the people who say things that his staff figures out may be less than true.  Somebody call Edward R. Murrow.

Hey, that's crazy.  Providing the service that most of us born in the 20th Century expect out of our journalists?  Checking facts and figures and not just running quotes because "well, that's what he said, and he's responsible for it" is not actually how that job was supposed to work, especially when it seems nobody is checking the facts.  I find that AP doesn't actually mention the change in journalistic standards explicitly in the article a bit baffling and a bit damning for everyone, from the cable news affiliates to AP to us as readers and audience.  We all took Civics in high school, and, ostensibly, we all knew what our parts in this thing called "news" was supposed to be (ie: you are not just a mouthpiece).

Its easy to blame Fox News as they were the biggest and best and did less to cover their political leanings than what many conservatives considered the left-leaning media.  But that doesn't explain MSNBC's blatant liberal pandering (I don't watch those guys even though I find Maddow pretty funny), and it doesn't explain why HLN just gave up and handed over the reigns to junk programming like Showbiz Tonight and crazy people like Nancy Grace and that lady from The View, essentially asking me to quit watching.

In truth, I have just never forgiven HLN for ditching Lynne Russell.
Cable News obviously knew the findings of the first article a long time ago.  We want the news to match our perceptions of the world.  Why not give people a way to tailor their perceptions exactly this way?  Even when the evidence proves we're totally and utterly wrong, isn't it great to have someone under studio lights and in a tie or fashionable blouse telling us "we know, we heard.  But we're skeptical too, and we'll keep looking into it until we find a way to make it okay and jive with what we normally say around here"?

Rather than try to break it down, I'll just quote here.  From the article:
As social media and advertising progresses, confirmation bias and the backfire effect will become more and more difficult to overcome. You will have more opportunities to pick and choose the kind of information which gets into your head along with the kinds of outlets you trust to give you that information. In addition, advertisers will continue to adapt, not only generating ads based on what they know about you, but creating advertising strategies on the fly based on what has and has not worked on you so far. The media of the future may be delivered based not only on your preferences, but on how you vote, where you grew up, your mood, the time of day or year – every element of you which can be quantified. In a world where everything comes to you on demand, your beliefs may never be challenged.
Is there a side that says this is not good for us?

I consider two scenarios (or more, but I'm providing two) - 1) A hypothetical American distant farming community circa 1880 and a hypothetical version of that place circa 1980

In 1890, communications with the outside world would be limited to visitors coming by horse or buggy.  Mail would arrive about once a week from a far off train depot.  news would come by wire, perhaps.  But by and large, its not so hard to see how a common perception of reality could be formed within this community, and that the echo chamber effect could make it real.  By 1980, would that still be the case?  Radio, visitors driving in, television, etc...  would provide new and differing opinions than just word of mouth.  The TV networks would know they are only 3, and the game for them requires that they find a way to communicate with the most people at once just to ensure market share.  People come and go freely from the town.  But by 2010 (or 2011), with the internet opening up channels and turning away from mass communication intended for 100 million versus mass communication intended for 10's of 1000's, which is more likely to look like the small town that thinks ghosts are responsible for the year's bad yield?

My exercise is no doubt flawed, but its something I wonder about a lot. It seems we went from a closed system of geographic inevitability to a system that was perhaps too homogenized but reached everyone and veered now into self-selected closed systems once more.   We're not building our models for reality based on a physical small community and what it shares, but upon what we find most comforting, and that's... creepy.

Here at The Signal Watch, it being an opinion sort of website, we've learned over the years that we can learn from the comments, and we can walk away with new information.  I hate to say it, team, but there's nothing to be gained in a 25-comment string if I'm refusing to acknowledge another's points or you're dismissing mine.  And so long ago we realized it was good policy to acknowledge that we start with a bias, and this is something that even before reading this article, I have striven to mention with each post.

Yes, its comforting to get a nod when I say something you may agree with and you say so, and its a headache when I realize "well, this is going to just keep going".  XKCD sums it up.

I am trying to move away from this.
So what I am trying to do is actually listen and read other people's points. But, of course, there's always going to be the occasion where that simply doesn't happen.

I understand some things are simply just taste, and we try to celebrate that around here, and I'm doing my best to consider the suggestions you guys pitch my way from Nausicaa (I still owe you guys a write up on that.  Crumbs.) to the recently suggested Blacksad.  But we're not perfect, and if we can't also enjoy a little discourse, well...  we'd hardly be human.

Anyhow, this also isn't a news site, per se.  But in pondering how one absorbs the news, we return to the issue that the AP was writing an unironic article about Cooper's approach and its surprise rise in ratings leaves me wondering not just about the state the media, but our relationship with it.

A final anecdote:  One of the strangest conversations I've had in the last ten years was with a lovely young woman who had just graduated from the Hugh Downs journalism school at Arizona State.  I was telling her how bizarre I found the local news in Phoenix, that the local morning news spent 10 minutes one Saturday talking about new handbags for the season, and she proudly smiled and said "yes, that's what people want".  And I said "but that isn't actually news or remotely newsworthy.  I expect more out of the local news."  And, rightly, she pointed out that nobody would watch actual news of what was happening in Phoenix, and that I just didn't understand how journalists were thinking these days.

And I guess I wasn't.  But, man, that was a kid fresh out of journalism school.  It was really, really scary.  And I wondered if Hugh Downs knew how his money was being used.


Anonymous said...

There is a theory that CNN is the lowest rated cable news network because they're not blatantly partisan.

The League said...

That may be true. And it may be a combination of the network doing everything it can to make their programming look like "Sabado Supergigante" and using phrases like "what's going on with that oil spill in the Gulf?" like they're making small talk with their doddery granny.

Anonymous said...

What's at issue is that it's all fine when a channel or a media figure acknowledges the editorial slant or opinion. That's why it's called "opinion" or "editorial".

What really happens is that these folks try to glom onto the legitimacy of "news", of presenting "facts" when in fact it's just entertainment or opinion.

Your example of the Arizona news show is as true example of this as Fox "Faux" News. You can't say you are a hard-hitting local news outlet and then lead with women's handbags. Seriously.

They use the imprimatur of how "news" used to be and then present their version of "news". It's a shell game with a sheer dependence on cognitive dissonance. They use the so-called "news" to validate their worldview not acknowledge reality.