It's been a little over three years since I completed my master's in Media Studies. Just about four years since the source material for my thesis manifested itself on the nightly news. And it's just about five days since the IS attacks on the city of Paris.
This far along I really shouldn't be surprised that the news media has actually gotten worse with its fear-mongering and posturing. Couple that with the rise of fanatic amateur "journalism" and I think we have something to actually fear: an amplified, ignorant citizen base.
Friday night as the Paris attacks were unfolding I quickly flipped on Sky News because the app exists on my Apple TV. I couldn't watch for more than five minutes. Even in the early first hour of the horrors that broke out across the capitol of France this particular news outlet was spinning a tale of fear and potential worse things to come, potentially on a global scale.
It was, of course, just posturing for the sake of ratings.
We switched over to BBC News and, while better, it was not completely devoid of sensationalism. BBC News began to report on the Calais fires based on random tweets. And not that many. While the fires did occur, the BBC News reporters waffled back and forth on the report's legitimacy based on a few tweets. That's not journalism. That's sloppy and misleading. And dangerous.
See, mass media — whether CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, BBC, RT, whoever — is paid for by someone. In the case of most it's advertisers and a few, governments. To keep their benefactors happy they have to sell something. That something is you, the consumer.
Your eyes on their advertisement. That's the currency you pay with (unless it's the New York Times in which you pay real money, too). And they need to get your eyes and as many other eyes as possible to stay on their channels. The way they do that is a little complicated, but ends up producing the same results.
The most basic way to capture you is through breaking a story first. That worked really well for decades, but since anyone can publish anything to the web nowadays this has led to some sketchier practices. These practices dovetail with another sketchy practice: click baiting.
Reporters have always tried to come up with catchy, attention-grabbing headlines. That's still true today but comes up against a couple of discrepancies. For instance, when an agency today is rushing to break a story they very often cut corners. Just like BBC News commenting on unconfirmed fires based off of reports by random folks on Twitter, news stories often fire off with little confirmation or research.
A Great Show from On The Media:
Whether you are watching on television or reading an article, someone is getting something wrong. The worst is when those poorly researched stories turn into click bait titles. We've all seen them, "8 Syrians travelled to Paris, you'll never guess what they blow up"-style headlines that are built to get the most amount of clicks possible and fear is an excellent way to do that.
Then there are those click-baity hyper-Conservative or hyper-Liberal "news" sites with stupid names. These sites are even worse on a quality-footing. They don't have the margins or funding the big boys do. They live for your clicks and the clicks of others. They get those clicks by being as sensational as possible and that means their stories probably aren't accurate. In fact, most of them aren't reporting news, they're reporting someone else's report of the news.
Media literacy is still important
The media and messages you share online hit a lot of eyes. 99.9% of the messages our friends share on Facebook or Twitter have are shoot-from-the-hip sharing. No one has time to critically read through an article, fact-check it, and consider it in contrast to other, similar articles. But everyone has time to click share and write a snarky remark. Being literate toward digital media in this age means lending a critical eye to the media we consume and propagate.