Media bias and fabrication
Every single day, 30% of the time is spent on media consumption, on average. 6 hours on Social Media itself, which is only increasing every year. Note that this is an Average figure and it will vary based on Age groups, geographical location, internet access, etc.
Attention is the name of the game. News is created to attract attention. And how do you get the attention of the populace? By targeting fundamental human drives; sex, greed, and fear. This has become the genesis of news, which targets such feelings specifically. To some of the media houses, it doesn’t matter if the news is true or false, so long it’s catchy. Either, the news is chosen selectively from a plethora of crucial information or it is fabricated
For instance, here are a couple of Internet Media websites spreading fabricated news; Denver Guardian, Americanmilitarynews.com, the political insider, Breitbart News, WNDR, WTOE, conservativestate.com. The fake news receives huge engagement on Social Media platforms, more than the factual news, unfortunately. These media outlets ignore the facts, invent something snappy, and succumb people into believing it. For example, OpIndia falsely claimed that a Hindu boy was sacrificed in Bihar mosque, Denver Guardian released a story about the murder of FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks, political insider published a compromising image of Bill Clinton with another woman, etc., All these headlines were later labeled as Fake news.
Of course, the majority of the populace doesn’t verify the news source and consume what is served. This is distributed majorly through social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Over 60% of American adults get their news from Social Media, 44% specifically from Facebook
Even when True, News is selected partially based on how it drives views and TRPs. As we know, every country has critical issues, which people need to know. For instance, people dying of heart attacks, government policy that supports farmers, women empowerment, data privacy, the reach of health insurance, tax cuts, etc. Of all these problems, a media channel would broadcast news about minor border disputes to rile people up, which gets more eyeballs. Such internet media articles or broadcasts get more Page views or TRP.
Money is not the only driver. Politicians own stakes in big Media houses, who, as a result, broadcast news that supports their propaganda and helps them win elections. This affiliation is dangerous as it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and principles. Not only politicians but other powerful rich businessman also control the media. For instance, Times Now broadcasted an ongoing case of sexual assault on Tehelka magazine editor-in-chief, Tarun Tejpal. Such shows are a dangerous attempt to sway public opinion against the complainant and in favor of the powerfully accused. This isn’t just irresponsible and unethical, but also illegal.
Free will is an illusion. Our decisions are never purely unbiased. Multiple cognitive biases influence our decision-making process. Media takes advantage of these biases to drive Revenue and influence through ads and Political Propaganda respectively.
Few relevant cognitive biases from Noble prize-winning Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’:
a) Availability heuristic: We over-weigh events we can easily visualize or understand. For instance, a terrorist attack is much more horrifying than heart disease, even though heart disease kills many more. So, media would cover a terrorist incident more than talking about how to prevent heart disease as terrorism garners intrigue
b) The framing effect: The way information is conveyed affects how it is construed by the public and the emotion it evokes. Either, I say that 90% of the people survived COVID-19 or 10% of the people died from COVID-19. A media person would choose the narrative that suits his cause
c) Recency bias: More importance is given to more recent information in our judgments of political candidates, relationships, etc. A biased Media outlet would broadcast the recent policies of a political party, inaccurately summarizing 5 years of work.
Government, business, and consumers should come together to combat the propagation of disinformation. The government should regulate or put up a legal infrastructure in place that not only penalizes the creation and propagation of False information but also enforces proportionate coverage of all the news. The media should be independent of any affiliation with the political parties and these affiliations need to be thoroughly investigated. Technology can help combat Fake news through Machine Learning algorithms.
The media should take moral responsibility and adhere to the standards of professional journalism. For instance, Instead of only reporting suicide cases, also report how suicide rates have decreased over time. Instead of devoting 60% of the prime time to Terrorism, discuss the Cardiovascular disease causes and prevention, inform farmers about low-interest loan programs, spread awareness about the free bus service for women, vaccination, entrepreneurship, government jobs and more.
As a listener/viewer/reader, we should be conscious of how we let news shape our understanding of the world. Learn to validate news from multiple sources, learn to doubt, question intentions, research, and explore. This is the new order of the world and a culture of information processing has to be cultivated from the early stages of our brain development. The first lesson in teaching is that no person, however eager, can appreciate the relevance of media, or anything in general, in human evolution without first grasping the fundamental concept of information, media, and news. The training could be added to the primary and secondary school curriculum. Children could be taught data validation, weighing multiple perspectives, and to be conscious of cognitive biases.
I understand that the proposed solution is easier said than done. There are many complications and it is going to take a long time to set up that infrastructure. But, this is a critical problem that will have a major role in shaping the current and most importantly future generations. The attempt to resolve should not be delayed any further.