Before discussing the Media’s difficulties in reporting reality, we must first ask what is reality? One may find this absurd… reality is reality! But is reality confide to one state? The reality is, ‘reality’ is subjective, where two or more people can have very different perspectives of the same reality.
In 2015 a photo of a dress known now as “The Dress” became an overnight sensation when it became the subject of debate among 10 million Twitter users including celebrities. The dress, appeared black and blue to some while others saw white and gold. The phenomenon sparked many peer-reviewed scientific journals, one such (Wallisch, 2017) highlighted how human perception of colour is ‘idiosyncratic’.
If colour is idiosyncratic, is it possible how one ‘sees’ reality is also open to interpretation and if so one can see how conflict can arise if two sides see two different ‘realities.’ Even if both sides accept there are two interpretations, which one ‘is the right one’. Hardiman-McCartney, in his blog post about ‘The Dress’, emphasised; “there is no right or wrong answer… both interpretations are perceptual constructs”, but history shows, humans only care for their interpretations, as the truth… ‘their truth.’ Anything that contradicts this is not the ‘right truth’.
So if we accept that reality is subjective, how does that affect the wider world. Take Donald Trump for example. One guy polarising sociopolitical landscapes in effect contributing to a distorted reality. ‘The left’ see him as the devil incarnate driving America into regress and destruction, while ‘the right’ see him as the ‘saviour of conservative values,’ and restoration.
“Fine people on both sides”
Trump’s ‘fine people’ quote (CNBC 2017) is a good example of this. The context in which Trump said it is very different to how mass media report on it particularly opposing media. Trump preceded the line with “I think there is blame on both sides…” The interpretation focused on by the mass media is basically saying; Trump said bad people are ‘fine people.’ When you study his speech on the day, (putting aside all previous statements from him, looking exclusively at this one) Trump explicitly said there were good people and bad people on both sides, and there was blame on both sides. Whether blame rests 50:50, 60:40 or 90:10 depends on who’s reality the media outlet chooses to focus on.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, the mass media (with exception of Fox News) have scrutinised every word Trump said and criticised him at every opportunity at a much greater level than his opponent Joe Biden who made several questionable comments himself. Examples include “Poor kids are just as talented as white kids” or “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump then you ain’t black.”
When you study the context in which he says these, one can understand what he means, however, 7% of black voters are republican or republican leaning (Pew Research Center, 2020) so there is a group who would feel this was racist. (the latter statement in particular) Yet the mass media don’t dramatise or linger it the same as if Trump said it. Showcasing bias and a lack of impartiality among the US media.
But people are not ignorant of this. According to a Knight Foundation/Gallup research report, American voters have indicated their perceived bias and inaccuracies in Mass media. 62% believe the news they receive is bias and thus inaccurate. However, their perceptions of such inaccuracies differed when taking into account their own political biases. 77% of Republicans believe bias exist while democrats were 44%. Fox News was voted the most bias news outlet according to democrats and the least bias according to republicans. MSNBC was voted bias by both sides, although republicans held stronger views. CNN in contrast was voted the most bias by republicans while democrats vote non-bias. These three networks are the US’s top three news outlets (according to statista.com) despite been viewed as bias.
PBS News and The Associated Press were voted the least bias by both sides. Interestingly nighter made it to the top ten most popular networks and both are Not-for-profit. Coincidence? Not really because as John Whale once said: “The broad shape and nature of the press is ultimately determined by no one but its readers.” Meaning, despite the media holding power to shape public opinion, their audience help shape them too. Fox News learnt this the hard way when they received backlash from their audience for being the first to declare victory to Joe Biden in Arizona.
“Fox News sucks!” was chanted by right-leaning protesters outside the count centre while the Trump campaign wasn’t long calling to complain. The Guardian call it an ‘existential crisis’ for Fox and with the fallout lasting weeks later one can be a bit surprised how much turmoil it created. One could say Fox News is been attacked by the Frankenstein monster it created. But I don’t believe they will lose their audience just yet after all right-wing conservatives have few alternative mass media networks willing to play into their echo chamber. But this shows how even the biggest network faces difficulties in reporting reality.
So what Socio-political difficulties do mass media have in reporting reality?
Impartial reality is boring, un-arousing and unprofitable. As quoted by Milton Posner; “News networks… are ultimately in the same business as [entertainment shows] and professional sports”. Earlier I said the two networks voted least bias were not-for-profit, an important differentiation from the two most popular. Not-for-profits, generally are under little pressure to deliver profits than the ‘For-profit” competitors. That's not to say their ‘For-loss’ either, profit is key to survival for any organisation. However, the lack of investors and a reduced profit-centric business model does liberate an organisation to focus on other values like reliable and impartial news. As for the ‘For-profits’ networks the bigger the audience, the bigger the profits and the bigger the budgets to maintain and build bigger audiences. Ultimately to make more money for their investors. Their business model is divided into reputation (be that impartial and reliable) and profit.
As quoted in the movie Shock and Awe “Truth doesn’t sell papers anymore” and in reality, papers don’t sell anymore either… revenues have taken a different model. The internet has created granule scrutinisation of an audiences engagement of an article. Usage data and algorithms observe what articles are read, abandoned, ignored, commented on and shared. All these analytics ultimately shape future articles, dictating what will and will not be published because more important of all the source of profit, (Advertisers) can see how and where news networks can get more bang for their buck.
Boring news that might be more informative, more factual and less bias, is ignored or cast aside because fewer eyeballs mean less profit and unlike before, analytics can determine with no uncertainty what the audience likes.
To conclude, one can see how socio-political situations can make it difficult for mass media to report reality. There are relationships to maintain, both audiences and subjects, there is profit to consider and there is the fact that reality can be just as political as politics itself.