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The great truth about all media is that controversy sells. People often ask why the news seems to focus on only the negative. That's because it does not peak interest to tell people that all is well and nothing bad happened. The goal of any media story is to motivate people to read past the headline. This is why headlines and broadcast news teases are typically blatant attempts to provoke your curiosity even if they do not reflect the true content of the story.
There are two primary triggers that peak reader interest. They are fear and anger. While sentiment and nostalgia are also lures, they require background and buildup that are difficult to communicate in a headline. They also only work on select segments of the population that can relate to the specific situation. Because media outlets must churn out and sell you on a high number of stories every day, they tend to rely on the easy triggers with wide appear. The media is therefore constantly trying to either scare you or piss you off.
Take political coverage for example. During a presidential debate, a wide range of important topics will be addressed. However, the media will focus stories about the debate on moments of confrontation or select statements that can be interpreted in a variety of ways for effect. Where these sensational moments the most important parts of the debate? Of course not, but bringing them up may make people take notice. Take a look at sports coverage. It tends to focus on what coaches and players have to say about each other, sideline confrontations, and player criminal dealings. The gossip surrounding these often manufactured controversies often overshadows what actually happens on the field.
The result of all this media selling is that we get a skewed view of reality. We believe things are important because we hear about them and we hear about them because media outlets believe we want to hear about them. If a child is kidnapped from their bed in an affluent suburban neighborhood, the media will provide extensive coverage. This leads to paranoia among parents that their children are in danger of being kidnapped from their beds. Statistically this is extraordinarily unlikely to happen. When an airplane crashes we the media is quick to report the number dead. However there is no news value in reporting on the many thousand more dying in car crashes every day, so we don't hear about them. Car travel is statistically much more dangerous than air travel, but if you rely on media reports it seems like the other way around. Many people are afraid to fly but few are afraid to ride in a car.
Both traditional mass media and social media are to blame for our media culture, but in different ways. Traditional mass media is a business. Television stations, radio stations, and newspapers (the few that still exist) sell you the news or entertainment for your viewership that they sell to advertisers. The only way to keep this business model viable is by providing advertisers a consistent number of viewers, and the only way to provide a consistent number of viewers is to get them to come back to view more product. New and interesting things do not occur every day, but traditional media outlets need viewers come back anyway. That is why they are in the business of making things that are not interesting seem interesting. It is a matter of survival during the long dry spells between actual news events. This constant cycle of teasing and disappointing the audience helped lead to the demise of traditional media. After crying "wolf" enough times, the audience realized that most of what was called "news" was actually a waste of their time.
Of course the Internet helped speed the death of traditional media. Being able to get your information whenever you want sure beat waiting for a newscast time or a newspaper to arrive. However, the Internet and social media did not solve the skewing of reality. It only skewed it in a different way. The Internet gave people the freedom of getting their news from a virtually limitless number of sources. While this was certainly good for fringe viewpoints that could not get traditional media attention, it also led to the self selection of media reality. Instead of hearing news from traditional media then deciding what to believe, people can go to the Internet to find news that reinforces what they already believe. This leads to even stronger convictions because the media they choose to watch makes these views seem more obvious. Now, instead of having to discount what you disagree with, you can refuse to listen to it at all. The result is a further divided society with people who can't comprehend other points of view because they are not exposed to them.
The bottom line is you should not automatically believe what you view, whether it is on traditional mass media, the Internet, or social media. Everyone who is telling you something has their own agenda. The only way to know if what you hear is right for you is to consider a wide range of viewpoints then decide. Social media gives everyone a voice. Just because a voice is loud does not make it right. Use your judgment and voice to decide what you believe and influence others. While you do that, appreciate that we live in a society that allows divergent points of view and this is what makes us strong. Any viewpoint worth believing must be sturdy enough to withstand criticism. If the only way to legitimize a viewpoint is to stifle other viewpoints then why should you believe in it? That is what totalitarian regimes do. Embrace this unprecedented period in history where worldwide information and communication are available to the free.
Kent Ninomiya is a lawyer, journalist, and Internet entrepreneur who founded Ninomiya Law, PLLC to focus on social media law issues.
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