Originally published in Paste Magazine. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty
If there is one phrase that’s been run into the ground this election season, it’s “mainstream media.” What started as a term to describe some of the largest publications and news conglomerates with the most clout and access, has become derogatory. “Mainstream media” now describes publications that can allegedly be “bought” and can’t be trusted to adhere to objectivity.
It’s no secret that most publications and news sources lean to the left or the right. It’s also no secret that people with political affiliations tend to gravitate to a publication that reinforces their beliefs and ideas. While there have always been conspiracy theorists who were hell bent on the idea that the media lies to us, it isn’t until recently that the notion of an untrustworthy mainstream media has become so widespread. Even Fox News, one of the largest news sources in the country, has published pieces condemning mainstream media. When TheBlaze pundit Tomi Lahren visited Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, she denied being mainstream despite many of her “Final Thoughts” segments booming in popularity all over the internet. Her infamous critique of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has 66 million views on Facebook alone.
While brushing news sources off as “too mainstream” to trust might not seem particularly detrimental in the grand scheme of things; this isn’t some band that signed to a major label much to the disdain of their DIY fan base. The President-elect himself is doing his part in feeding into this suspicion of the media by blowing Twitter up each time the New York Times, CNN, NBC, or the press in general is mean to him. It’s this distrust that’s causing people to fall for fake news sites like the now-notorious Liberty Writers News whose publishers admitted to the Washington Post that they write stories with zero truth to them.
“God, I just know everything about this statement is so wrong,” fake news writer Ben Goldman told the Washington Post, laughing as he was fabricating a story about the DNC headquarters for the clickbait website.
This isn’t the first time that the public didn’t trust the media. In the late 1800s, the term “yellow journalism” was established to describe the sensational nonsense that was published for the sole purpose of selling papers. This term has had a resurgence in recent months to describe just about any article with a vague headline and an excess of capitalization, tempting you to click to find out what “YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE.” The only bit of truth to these sorts of stories is that you actually should never believe them.
It’s unclear as to why these fake news stories have become such an issue recently when it comes to news consumption. After all, most of the people we see sharing them on Facebook are the age of the parents who told us not to believe the Bat Boy stories on the cover of Weekly World News magazines we’d see in the checkout line at the supermarket growing up.
Contrary to popular belief, fake news describes sensational journalism written solely for clicks and devoid of any attempt at reporting facts — not news that you don’t agree with. The left and the right are both guilty of churning out false stories, so could the consumers simply believe these stories and share them as a form of wishful thinking?
According to a study from the Pew Research Center, the majority of survey participants were confident in their ability to tell a fake news story from a real one. However, when it came to who’s responsible for cutting down on the attention these types of stories received, results were varied. Forty-five percent of respondents believed this was the duty of the government, 43 percent believed that it was the public’s responsibility, and 42 percent said the burden should be placed on social media and search engines. Only 15 percent of people thought that every option should have a role in attempting to limit the amount of fake news that reached the masses.
LOOK FOR THE FACTS
The fact of the matter is that mainstream media tends to have more resources and more access to the people in power than any independent source, whether we like it, trust it, or not. Some of the things they publish might resonate with you, and others might challenge your way of thinking. This is why it’s important to do your due diligence as a news consumer to ensure that you’re getting the full story.
The reputable media certainly has a responsibility to share accurate news with the public. However, we can’t simply read a story, accept everything it tells us at face value, and disregard any other reputable publication that may tell the story a bit differently. So, as responsible news consumers, how are we supposed to seek the full truth?
It’s important to realize the bias that your preferred news source has. Don’t be naïve — just about anything you’ll be reading at least vaguely leans left or right. Now, because there’s a bias, does that mean that the publication can’t be trusted? Not always. Read the full story, and then read a story on the same topic from another source. If you still feel like gaps need to be filled in, read one more. Hell, if your original story was published by a left wing source, read another from the right if you want to get wild, and vice versa.
You also need to realize that there are different levels of bias. For example, the New York Timesmay lean a bit to the left, but Breitbart leans way right — alt-right, if you will. ABC News may err on the conservative side but browsing through U.S. Uncut, despite putting on the façade of delivering us news of Trump’s already impeachable offenses, leaves you feeling like you may have just given your computer a virus.
If there’s an aspect of a story, political or not, that absolutely does not sit well with you, no matter where you read it from, you can take matters into your own hands and file a Freedom of Information Act request. The Freedom of Information Act states that any citizen can request access to public or federal records from any federal agency. The process can be arduous, and it might take awhile to get the information that you’re seeking, but it’s a legal, effective method that not enough people are informed about.
PUNDITS ARE NOT JOURNALISTS
Political pundits are one of the most accessible, easy-to-understand sources of information on both sides of the political spectrum. While there’s nothing wrong with tuning in to these entertainer’s TV or radio shows, podcasts, or YouTube videos, it’s absolutely crucial to remember that they are just that — entertainers. Journalists are expected to adhere to a set of ethical standards that include not fabricating stories or quotes, regardless of any political affiliation or bias. Political pundits are under no such obligation to the public.
While it would be easier tell commentators to stop making information up and posing it as undisputed fact than to tell the public to fact-check anything that a commentator says before spreading the word, that’s unreasonable. Who wants to listen to a pundit talk about middle of the road, drama-free political happenings? Nobody, because that’s boring. But, who’s interested in tuning in to watch Info Wars’ Alex Jones pop a blood vessel screaming about how positive he is that Hillary Clinton is a literal demon that smells of sulfur? Whether you’re hate-watching or genuinely thinking, “Well, yeah, she is obviously a demon,” the latter will likely hold your attention longer than the former. Ridiculousness gets clicks, and in the age of technology, clicks are king.
Shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver also did their part in spreading information this past election season, with full episodes available online. While each of these shows have teams of fact-checkers working behind the scenes, the spin caters to the liberal side of America, with the hosts regularly playing into the stereotype that Trump supporters are uneducated racists. Both of these hosts got their start as comedians, and though their careers have taken political turns, comedy still comes first.
There is no grand scheme to lie to us, perpetrated by the mainstream media. Most of these reporters that you don’t trust live in studio apartments and are just trying to pay off their j-school debt while fighting the urge to read the comment sections on their stories — they’re far from the elite. The information you seek is out there, and if you choose not to attempt to see through spin, then what you don’t know is your fault.