If there were a list of things I absolutely required all my students to understand before leaving my class, the relationship between mass media, politics, and science would be close to the top of the list. But there are a lot of moving parts in these relationships, so the terrain is difficult to traverse.  As one might expect of a difficult topic, there is much to read and a lot to unpack.  Please be aware of your time constraints and work diligently to cover all presented information. 

The Political Sliding Scale

Politics generally happens on a sliding scale encompassing left-wing, centrist, and right-wing ideologies. Where people fall on this scale pre-determines much of how they perceive, understand, and report on world events.

Image showing the political sliding scale from communism on the far left to fascism on the far right.

To be clear there are political beliefs that do not fit neatly onto a scale such as this, so please don’t view this as the end all be all of ideologies. However, generally speaking this framework holds up in much of the world.  The qualities embodied by the left side of the scale are liberalism and collectivism, with an increasing reliance on government to provide for its citizens as it approaches communism on the extreme left.  The qualities of the right side of the scale are conservatism and individualism with increasing reliance on corporations to provide for the needs of its citizenry.  

People and/or organizations who want for society to move in one direction or the other (or to stay the same!) will try to influence mass media coverage of world events in order to represent their particular ideology favorably. For instance, a libertarian think tank will try to prevent a government solution to a problem at all costs, and a liberal organization will be much more likely to focus on how a corporation is harming the environment rather than how it is lowering unemployment.  These stories become the evidence that society uses to debate the best way forward (or backward!).

The political divide between individuals and organization is the crucial backdrop to understanding the motivations for the way world events are discussed and portrayed. 

The News Media Sliding Scale

Further complicating matters is the fact that news media themselves operate on two different sliding scales. The first is one of bias, and the second is one of quality.  This infographic does a fair job of representing both. 

A popular depiction of the biases of several prominent sources. This infographic was created by a librarian in 2016.

Check out another useful infographic on media bias.

But what determines whether something is simple or complex, biased or objective. good or bad?  Since Donald Trump’s election, we have heard a lot about “fake news.” Though fake news is a problem, it is not necessarily THE problem. The problem is the lack of objectivity among both creators and users of information, a lack which manifests itself on a sliding scale that looks something like this:  

Reporting happens on a sliding scale from objective reporting to fake news.
Reporting happens on a sliding scale from objective reporting to fake news.

What Are We up Against?

On one end of the spectrum we have the gold standard of objective reporting in which a detached, impartial reporter posts a completely neutral recitation of illuminating facts through which a completely rational readership may choose the best course of action. This isn’t possible, of course, but it serves as a model to which people should (and professional journalists DO) aspire.

Less desirable than the perfect world is one in which authors, reporters, and/or their publishers have specific degrees of bias towards their respective ideologies and arguments. Ideally, they would be up front about their biases, but often, that is not the case.  Biased reporting may come in the form of words or images that emotionally manipulate readers and/or viewers.  Evaluating sources for bias can be taught, but people should also be aware that biases can be masked by false balance and framing. 

False balance is when reporters take a tone of neutrality by attempting to treat two sides of a controversy or argument with equal validity, even when they are inequitable when all of the underlying differences are considered. For instance, when the vast preponderance of evidence shows that global warming is happening and indicates with very high probability that the cause is human activity, sources giving equal time and word count to the few who deny it obscure the true picture of the scientific community.

Sources may also express bias by framing the discussion.  As a window allows people to view only part of the landscape outside, so does framing limit how information is perceived. For instance, an event, decision, or policy may be discussed and evaluated only on the metric of one particular party’s interest, such as an editorial critiquing an Environmental Protection Agency report for its impact on loggers while ignoring the big picture of its environmental aspects. 

On the far-end of the spectrum is fake news, which to be completely clear, is not news.  It is completely fabricated but often truthful-seeming propaganda created for the sole purpose of generating ad revenue for websites. The unfortunate by-product of this is that the readers of said websites are misinformed and are destined to become even more misinformed as they keep returning to similar sites and having their biases reinforced with untruths. To read more about this sliding scale and what to do about it, visit LIS101.com.

To read more about the problematic nature of mass media in the US, it is instructive to read Peter Vanderwicken’s “Why the News is Not the Truth.” Vanderwicken highlights the conflicts between government and business in shaping what we see on the news every night and how we perceive it.  He notes coolly that, “news can change perceptions, and perceptions often become reality.”  

The Process of Science

Making this still more complicated is that the process of science, itself, is often messy. Napa Valley College Library graciously shared with LIS101 its page about the scientific method, which will refresh readers on the traditional steps.  To read a more explicit example of the scientific method in action, one can trace the history of the science of global warming here. But as all practicing scientists know, the process is usually a lot messier and involves a great deal of  iteration and reiteration. University of California at Berkeley provides a reminder of how long and drawn out the process often is. Given the long and often circuitous process of science, it is not uncommon to see headlines and mainstream stories that utterly confuse the relevance or findings of a study.  For instance, some readers may recall reading that a study had found health benefits for smelling farts. Articles about this finding went viral, garnered lots of clicks and shares and in turn generated a lot of ad revenue for the story’s carriers.  Less attention was paid later when the debunking articles began to appear:  No, Smelling Farts Isn’t Good for You.

Even though sometimes science reporters miss the importance of a story or misinterpret it (badly!), it is important that scientists keep up their work and that media outlets try their hardest to fairly and accurately present all that goes into their work.  Consider just how much work goes into even the shortest story about a science topic:

How it All Gets Scrambled

If we recognize that we, as media consumers, have biases, and that they, as media producers, have biases, and also that science is extremely complicated to cover in a short news story, then we start to see the depth of the problem. To further complicate these matters is the nature of our profit-driven mass media channels.  Sensational stories about popular or controversial people always garner more media attention than more difficult topics, such as science.  This disparity very much skews peoples’ worldviews and awareness of current events.  Watch for example the difference between the amount of time spent on climate change and the amount spent on the death of model Anna Nicole Smith:

Moreover, there are many independent agents trying to exert influence over what is covered and how it is reported on. There are advertisers, marketers, public relations experts, think tanks, lobbyists, activists, and special interest organizations.  To get a glimpse of how these players may affect the news and public discourse, in general, read about think tanks and “sound science.”

Unfortunately, it is not as simple as putting the best available science on the news for all to see and understand. There are many factors that complicate how science is created and disseminated. This overview introduces you to just a few of the many reasons that politics, science, and media interact with less than optimal results.

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