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What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.
— Harry Houdini
The news acts as our eyes and our ears, with its reporters scouring the land to bring back stories – stories we rely on to help us make sense of the world we live in. But the stories they most often bring back focus on war, corruption, scandal, murder, famine and natural disasters. This creates a perception of the world that does not necessarily reflect reality.
When we open our eyes, we assume that what is in front of us is reality. In fact, it is not that simple. The reality I see through my eyes may be different to the reality you see through yours – even though we may be experiencing the same event. This is what we know as perception.
Perception Is An Interpretation Of Reality
The simplest distinction between perception and reality is that reality is something that exists objectively and is untouched by human experience, whereas perception is an individual’s interpretation of that reality, or how we think about a situation. From this distinction, we can see that reality’s trademark feature is that it has an objective truth.
Journalists will tell you that they report objectively as an invisible middle man, to portray reality, untouched, to their audience. However, objectivity in the newsroom is an illusion. It exists to the extent that journalists will (hopefully) ground their stories in verifiable facts; however, the presentation of these facts is open to interpretation. This is because as soon as anyone tries to retell reality it becomes coloured in some way by their perception and moves from being objective to subjective.
It is not just how stories are reported that undermines a journalist’s objectivity but also what is being reported. The very selection of what to report interferes with a journalist’s chance to be truly objective, as they, and/ or their editors, make an editorial decision to magnify stories they deem to be important and ignore or minimise stories they consider to be unimportant. How can you be neutral when you have made a decision about what is newsworthy and what is not?
Are the stories prioritised for the pursuit of social enlightenment? Global impact? Audience engagement? Profitability? This may not be entirely clear. Because of the commercial environment of the news, the incentive of journalists can be misaligned with the more idealistic aims of journalism. In these cases, how can it be possible for them to make truly objective decisions about what stories to cover?
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"The News" Is A Valuable Institution
This critical observation is not made for the sake of being difficult or disrespectful. I recognise and understand that the news is an incredibly valuable institution, with objectivity being a founding cornerstone. It is possible to acknowledge and support the ideals of the news industry – impartiality, verification of facts, the presentation of a variety of perspectives, emotional detachment and objectivity – while also recognising its limitations. And in some cases these ideals are not what is driving a news story and they are more than compromised: they are disregarded altogether.
As a result, some of the journalism we see today contradicts many of these; it does express editorial bias, the facts may not have been verified, it may use emotive and judgemental language, and can sometimes have a narrow-minded and even bigoted narrative. Under this review, it is clear that objectivity is perhaps just an ideal rather than a reality. However, because objectivity is considered to be such a large part of the foundation upon which journalism was built, it is difficult to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.
Seeing Things As They Are
People have said ‘the news is objective’ so often that they believe it to be true. Those of us who see objectivity to not exist are considered too stupid to understand its application or quite simply wrong by many people in the industry. However, those who blindly defend objectivity based on the conventional wisdom of journalistic principles are perhaps ignoring the most obvious conclusion that it does not exist.
This lack of objectivity is not a failing of journalists; it is a feature of our species rather than a feature of their profession. It is not ‘the media’ that objectively reports the facts of the news but people who present these facts in a structured way to tell a story using the five important Ws: what, when, where, who and why. In fact, the news media is one of the biggest storytelling industries outside of Hollywood.
These stories have a powerful capability to connect us to the rest of the world by bringing the distant near and making what is unknown and different understandable and familiar. The news helps us to become aware of events happening globally that we are not able to experience first-hand. These stories also help us make sense of events that we do experience, providing information and analysis about the wider context in which they have occurred.
This is of huge benefit to us; before mass communication, we only knew of a world that we experienced with our own senses. To learn of the world beyond this, our tribal ancestors would rely on watchmen who would stand on the hills ahead and report back to the tribe. In our more modern environment, the news has allowed us to have an abundance of watchmen on an unprecedented number of hills with the power to speak to a multitude of tribes about the world beyond our borders.
These stories about reality beyond our borders form the basis of our perception of the wider world and its state of affairs. We are sometimes so convinced by them that we retell them as if we had seen them with our own eyes. This is because the way information is processed in our minds makes us unable to distinguish between media and non-media inputs. This means that a media narrative can become the functional equivalent to personal experience, creating memories, shaping knowledge and founding beliefs in the same way as other genuine experiences in our lives.2
In his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann eloquently captures how the media influences our perception of the world when he says, ‘The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event.’ Because most of the stories we hear about in the news are not ones that we experience first-hand, we depend on the media to inform us on them and essentially construct this ‘reality’ for us.
In theory, members of the news media are supposed to suppress their human tendency for personal bias in order to report reality accurately and objectively. As mentioned previously, this is deemed to be the most important guiding principle in the profession. The well-known US broadcaster Edward R. Murrow was in support of this when he famously said that the news ‘must hold a mirror behind the nation and the world’ and that, more importantly, ‘the mirror must have no curves and must be held with a steady hand’. In practice, however, the mirror that is being held has all sorts of subtle curves and a fair few not-so-subtle dents.
There are two reasons for this: the first is our individual bias and the second is the industry preference.
People Report The News
On an individual level, we must remember that people report the news. No matter what professional guidelines are put in place, news reporters are not exempt from the rapid and involuntary psychological processes of perception. This subtle and sometimes unconscious influence can lead stories to become ‘curved’ with opinion, selective attention and emotional language that colours the reality and the facts.
This manipulation does not just happen once – it can happen many times over, because a story is not just told by one person. Although it may be reported by one person initially, it then travels through a network of people, known as gatekeepers, before we receive it.
One of the first to identify the existence of gates and gatekeepers along information channels was psychologist Kurt Lewin. He identified that there are points along the communication channel where decisions are made about what stays in and what gets left out. The people who have the power to operate these gates become crucial in the flow of information.
The gatekeepers within mass media news channels can easily be identified:
- The person or people who see the news happen – they see this event selectively; some things are noticed and some are not.
- The reporter who talks to the initial source(s). They decide which facts to pass along, how to shape the story and which parts to emphasise.
- The editor, who receives the story and decides to cut, add, change or leave as is.
- The aggregated broadcast channels. Some news stories make it to the big screen; completed and submitted by editors, these news stories are now at the mercy of the broadcaster, who decides which ones to show on the national news channel.
- If the story goes overseas, further gatekeepers will decide if it is worthy of their time, regardless of whether it is broadcast or print.
The more gatekeepers a story passes through, the more we will hear about it, magnifying its perceived importance. These ‘important’ issues, fed to us through the news, determine what we think about and lay the foundations for what we discuss socially, whether that’s on social media or at a dinner party, as well as influencing the focal point for our national narrative, further amplifying their reach.
It works the opposite way too, with stories considered to be unimportant left off the news agenda, leaving us unaware of their existence. This magnification and minimisation creates curves in the theoretical mirror which distorts our perception of reality.
Once the story is selected, the way that it is reported will often influence how we then feel about the issue. The idea that the news tells us not only what to think about but how to think about it will set in motion the national narrative and a shared feeling on an issue. In sociology, this phenomenon is known as agenda-setting theory.
In some ways, this selection is necessary, as we do not need to know every little detail of the thousands of daily events that take place globally. However, by selectively reporting on mostly negative events, we come to perceive the world through a troubled lens and have a distorted understanding of reality. This distorted understanding, rather than reality itself, can then determine public opinion. And widespread public opinion can then put pressure on governments to address a local, national or global concern and can become the basis for legislative action.
For example, in the US, crime news tripled between 1992 and 1993, and by 1994 it was actually more dominant than news about the economy, healthcare reform and midterm elections combined. This created a perception that crime was increasing and had an enormous impact on public opinion. Before 1992, only 8 per cent of people considered crime to be the nation’s most important issue, but the increase in crime reporting saw this figure jump to 39 per cent in 1994. This is because the mind tricks us into thinking that the more we hear about something, the more prevalent it is. In psychology, this is known as the availability theory.
The rise in concern about crime was built on people’s perception of reality, not the reality itself. In fact, statistics from the justice department showed that crime had either remained the same in some crime categories and had been dropping in others over this period.
Despite these hard facts, the perceived increase in crime became a hot topic of discussion and put pressure on the government, leading them to create more prisons at a faster rate than ever in their history. Just six years later, the US had more people behind bars than any other country. Prison sentencing had become so rife that in 2001, the US had between five and eight times more people behind bars than Canada and most Western European countries.
Agenda-Setting and Opinion-Setting Through Framing
As highlighted by ‘agenda-setting theory’, the news does more than simply tell us what to think about – it also tells us how to think about an issue by the way in which information is presented, using framing techniques and news angles. Framing can direct readers’ attention towards certain aspects of a story, while drawing it away from other parts of it.
Different frames are suggested to stimulate different emotional responses and it can create a confusing narrative when two organisations present the same facts differently. Although framing techniques may not alter the facts of reality, they can allow journalists to be flexible with how they interpret these facts, where to place the focus and how to explain it for the sake of creating a ‘good’ story.
Distrusting the Media
Truth is a delicate and precious asset to news organisations; how close they stick to it will determine how much we come to trust the media. Unfortunately, at the moment trust in the media is at an all-time low, with only 43 per cent of people in the UK trusting the news in 2017. One of the main reasons for this distrust is the embellished nature of the news, the way the truth is altered or disregarded altogether for the sake of telling a good story.
Another reason for our distrust is that their quest for drama forces news organisations to focus on the failings of the world. This kind of problem-driven focus gives the reader only one half of the story and creates an incomplete and often dire picture. In order to create a more truthful account that is better bound to objective reality, we should be presented with the whole picture. The media industry should widen its focus to include stories of strength as it does weakness, on successes as it does failures, on human excellence as it does human corruption and scandal, on solutions as it does problems, and on progress as it does recession.
So at this stage, perhaps take a moment for reflection and ask yourself: when you think about the way in which you see the world, how much of that vision has been media-led? We can then follow up with the questions: How are we being led to perceive the world? What stories are being reported on? What stories are we not hearing about? It is this last question that I am most concerned about.
As Houdini famously said, ‘What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.’ In contrast to this, what the eyes don’t see and the ears don’t hear, our mind will never know; you cannot see what you have not been shown. You cannot hear what you have not been told. You cannot understand what has not been explained, and you cannot know what is happening in parts of the world that have been left off the news agenda.
While I am not reducing the news to merely an informational illusion, it is important to note that we are presented with a version of reality that is created to sell newspapers. It is up to us to remain vigilant in our own personal search for the truth, including both problems and solutions, actively seeking our news rather than passively accepting only what is put in front of us. It is important that we pick our sources of news carefully and deliberately to remain informed about the world.
©2019 by Jodie Jackson. All Rights Reserved.
Excerpted with permission.
Publisher: Unbound. www.unbound.com.
You Are What You Read
by Jodie Jackson
In You Are What You Read, campaigner and researcher Jodie Jackson helps us understand how our current twenty-four-hour news cycle is produced, who decides what stories are selected, why the news is mostly negative and what effect this has on us as individuals and as a society. Combining the latest research from psychology, sociology and the media, she builds a powerful case for including solutions into our news narrative as an antidote to the negativity bias. You Are What You Read is not just a book, it is a manifesto for a movement. (Also available as a Kindle edition and as an Audiobook.)
About the Author
Jodie Jackson is an author, researcher and campaigner, and a partner at The Constructive Journalism Project. She holds a master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of East London where she investigated the psychological impact of the news, and she is a regular speaker at media conferences and universities.