Protect yourself against bias posing as news

I’ve been hearing a lot about a little story in the news lately …

Regarding the story of Pence attending the “Hamilton” production and President Elect Trump’s reprimand Tweets: I’ve seen several versions of the story floating about and arguments on both sides and I’m wondering why there are sides at all. It’s because we have become so incredibly divided, and we seem to like it that way, that’s why. And social media has tapped into what we like just like they always do. You mention Snickers in a post and I’ll bet you, you’ll begin to see something about Snickers in advertising or in your feed pretty soon.

Put up your dukes. And help the instigators get rich.

So – we like fighting; we like opposition, and we like talking trash on the “other side.” Facebook says, “That’s cool. We’d like to help.” Not only that, entrepreneurs who think of themselves as journalists see a market to tap into as well and they begin to write up stories to help divide and infuriate. They take advantage of the fact that the majority of Americans are on Facebook AND THEY ARE NOT MEDIA LITERATE. They believe anything that looks like news. These sites are set up to pay them in advertising revenue based on “clicks” so the more clicks they can get, the more money they make off of readers’ media illiteracy and desire for a fight.

Enter a juicy piece like Pence attending “Hamilton” and Trump shaking the parental finger in the cast’s face via Twitter.

So what really happened at the theater?

There is a lot of context to the fact that the man Pence attended the production “Hamilton”. I leave that to individuals to read about and come to their own conclusions. However, at the end of the production, actor Brandon Victor Dixon, with the rest of the cast supporting him, read a brief, prepared message, directed politely to Pence, asking that the new White House uphold American values and rights for all Americans, and referenced the diversity in the production.

(It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the Trump/Pence campaign ridiculed Mexicans, African Americans, Muslims, women, the disabled and other minority groups, and that the party platform is against marriage equality). Reports say that Pence had been on his way out, but that he waited in the hallway outside to hear what was being said. Later, Trump tweeted out a reprimand about harassment and demanded an apology. That is out of the general character of a president, what with the First Amendment and all.

What’s real and what’s not?

When newsworthy events happen, readers are dependent on journalists for reports, if they truly want to know. In this instance, NYT’s version differs greatly from TMZ’s version, which seemed built to anger conservatives, using inflammatory words like “shots fired”. What I saw and heard was not “shots fired.” It was a request to hear a position. TMZ called Dixon “Fake Aaron Burr”, which is technically correct, considering he was an actor playing the part of Aaron Burr, but “fake” has a definite negative connotation. In my introduction to journalism classes we call this “editorializing”. Writers add their opinion, their bias, with words that imply opinion or judgment, and since journalism is supposed to be as non-biased as possible, we work to keep that stuff out of our stories.

What can I do to prevent foolishness in my newsfeed?

Be aware that you are always reading a version of the story, often one that is slanted with the writer’s point of view. Note any inflammatory language, the adjectives and adverbs, absolutes, exclamation points. True journalism does not use these devices. Be aware of other versions and parts left out, points of view not addressed, lack of credible sources, balance not achieved. Be an educated consumer of news.

TMZ and other biased sites are telling you what to think. Social media is taking advantage of its audience by appealing to emotions. Don’t let those who are continually trying to divide us win. Either ignore the shock stories or research for the truth, but try not to base your opinion of “the other side” on this kind of non-journalism. 

My opinion on credible news sources is just that: my opinion. Since the biased ones are too many to list, I’d say New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNN are credible, though someone may see it differently. I know Trump does. But then, I’m not sure he likes the media at all. Or the First Amendment. Watch out, folks.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

One Response to Protect yourself against bias posing as news

  1. Ruth says:

    When I taught Comp II (argumentative writing–when that was considered a useful skill), one exercise involved researching several articles and identifying several neutral statements of fact. We would argue for one opinion and then its opposite by doing nothing more than rearranging those statements. Other exercises required determining an article’s bias.

    When I read their FB posts, I feel like my students have forgotten everything they ever learned about detecting bias.

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