People are waking up to the danger of fake news – phony stories hyped up by the media and politicians — but we news consumers have to be alert to the subtler slanting of the news that happens every day.
And I mean every day. Just as an experiment, on the morning of Feb. 24 I looked over the News & Observer’s website to see what I might find in terms of news that is distorted subtly – and therefore dangerously.
The non-news news story
Take an Associated Press story from a day earlier. Its lead – the first and most important part of the story – reads: “The NAACP is announcing plans for an economic boycott of North Carolina to protest laws enacted by the state’s conservative General Assembly, including one limiting LGBT protections.”
Note how little substance or urgency this article has. It’s about an announcement about a PR event that is scheduled to announce something an activist group hopes will happen in the future.
Will knowing this a day ahead of time matter to a typical reader? Of course not, it’s just hype.
But the AP and N&O, just by creating this item, have made it seem important.
The real problem is that no one reads a newspaper with full attention. We glance over it. But that’s exactly why these tactics are so insidious: We readers don’t have our guard up, and these factoids get into our minds without our even noticing.
This distortion of the news continues right down to the final paragraph: “Previously, the NAACP held a 15-year economic boycott of South Carolina over the flying of the Confederate battle flag on Statehouse grounds. That boycott ended with the flag’s removal in 2015.”
This is a classic logical fallacy: just because two things happened at the same time doesn’t mean that one caused the other. But of course we newspaper readers aren’t focused on that, so this too may well slip right by us.
You have more important things to do than look the facts up, but Civitas generously lets me monkey around with this kind of thing, so I did.
The 15-year period cited saw South Carolina’s real GDP rise from $145 billion to $179 billion, according to stastista.com. That doesn’t sound terrible, does it?
Moreover, the economy of a state is subject to a huge number of variables. South Carolina’s economy is larger than those of Greece, or the Czech Republic, or New Zealand. It’s impossible to say whether one tiny variable had any effect, and it’s extremely unlikely it did. But just by the way it arranged the words, the N&O made it seem as if the boycott was a huge success.
The lonely quote
Then there’s the single person who is taken, for no apparent reason, as a representative of some large story. That’s behind the N&O story about a Triad area billboard reading: “Real men provide, Real women appreciate it.”
Here’s another trade secret: Any news story needs quotations. In a state of 10 million people, it’s not too hard to find someone who will say something mildly interesting. The hidden implication, however, is that what the person says is correct.
The item says the billboard “has caught the eye — and the ire — of some who think it is a slam on gender equality.”
Some? How many? Who are they? Are their thoughts representative?
The newspaper puts forward one person, “Winston-Salem business owner Molly Grace,” to say: “It does not say anything that suggests that men and women are equal role players in the home.”
“It really marginalizes and hurts people,” she added.
Are her views representative of many others? A majority? Of the thousands who drive past the billboard, how may agree, how many find it silly but unimportant, and how many don’t care? Would she mind if this news item draws attention to her business? Hard to say.
The main trick here is that the N&O has found one person who has an opinion, and is touting her views as important. Are they? The N&O doesn’t know. But the reporter has stumbled across, out of the thousands who have glimpsed the billboard, one person who has some emotion over it, and that’s enough for a story.
Unfortunately, most of us readers won’t catch how little substance the story has.
Of course, the quickest, easiest way to slant a story is to fiddle with the headline. The same N&O website had a Charles Krauthammer/Washington Post column headlined: “US foreign policy amid a ‘Madman’ President Trump.”
The first thing a would-be journalist learns is that many readers read only the headline; those who read further usually have taken a crucial first impression from the headline.
The association of words is vital. Professional communicators all know this. That’s why, for instance, a restaurant menu will tout the “delicious appetizers” and “luscious desserts.” Your mind may recognize the adjectives, but your mouth will water anyway.
From the very beginning, this headline links “Madman” and “Trump.” And we typical newspaper readers are hardly conscious of it.
So is Krauthammer calling the president a madman? The opposite is true. He is no Trump fan, but he recognizes the power of the classic “good cop/bad cop” ploy.
The real point of the column is that the flamboyant, unpredictable president has surrounded himself with experienced foreign policy experts. Krauthammer writes:
“This suggests that the peculiar and discordant makeup of the U.S. national security team – traditionalist lieutenants, disruptive boss – might reproduce the old Nixonian ‘Madman Theory.’ That’s when adversaries tread carefully because they suspect the U.S. president of being unpredictable, occasionally reckless and potentially crazy dangerous. Henry Kissinger, with Nixon’s collaboration, tried more than once to exploit this perception to pressure adversaries.”
In other words, the column in fact suggests the president uses his public persona to create leverage for the diplomats and generals who implement the policies. In this view, Trump isn’t a madman, he’s (duh!) a cagy dealmaker.
You don’t have to buy that conclusion to see the point: The headline sets up our perceptions of the actual column. Many people will skim the column and won’t even get to the real gist of it. The misleading headline will influence more people than the actual column.
The examples above are almost subliminal in their impact, but that makes them all the more effective. Multiply these by the media messages we are surrounded with all the time, and you see the danger.
By all means, beware of fake news. But, just as important, every day when you look at a newspaper or watch TV or surf the Internet, beware of how a great deal of all the news is subtly shaped and twisted to mislead you.