(And it has nothing to do with Trump)
Recently, one of America’s oldest millennials turned 35. It was me. As a child born in 1982 and raised on a small-town farm, I don’t always relate to my fellow millennials with their love of social media, Starbucks, and all things hipster. So it was a big jump for me to create a blog and start reaching out to fellow military spouses in my generation. Blogging has been a wonderful way to connect to some incredible people from around the country. But it also has a dark underside.
From the beginning, I wanted my blog to be professional. That meant playing the numbers game and working to grow my ‘reach’ on social media. When I approached social media from a business perspective, with professional accounts, I had to learn a lot. Quickly. Some of it was fun, like how to create memes. But other aspects of online media were eye-opening and downright depressing. I promise not to talk much about the recent election, but I have had some revelations in the past year that explain the craziness happening in the news media and Twitter.
7 Dark Secrets of Media
- Everything you see online is an ad. At first, I thought bloggers made their money from ads on their site. No. I soon learned that every post on every blog is an ad! Whether it is a ‘sponsored post’ (a company paid them to write something), an ‘affiliate link’ (a company gives the blogger a percentage of each product they sell), or simply a product review, everyone is selling something. Even though I avoid most of those tactics on my site, I still admit that every page on my blog is selling myself as a writer. I have used my reputation to make money as a freelance writer. In the past year, I realized that news websites operate the same way. Since their posts can’t be sponsored or affiliated, they make their money from marketing their brand. Every article you read, every news clip you see reposted, is designed to sell a brand to you. If you trust the brand and return to it, their numbers grow, along with their ad revenue. And their book sales too, if the hosts are authors.
- Everyone has an agenda or a bias. There may have been a time when news outlets tried to present an unbiased truth. 2016 was not that time. Even highly reputable mainstream news sources fight for viewers and numbers. The way to retain viewers is by creating an emotional connection or an intense reaction. I know this from writing… but I am not a reporter. Many journalists and TV hosts have essentially become opinion columnists: they share their opinions on the day’s events. This is great for connecting with readers or viewers, but it doesn’t always make them right. If they approach events without an open mind, but with an intention to prove someone wrong, then they are not doing the true job of a journalist. Whether you agree or disagree with something you see or hear, remember that there is always another side of the story. And sometimes, if you take time to listen and discuss, the other side actually makes sense!
- Journalists don’t have time to get all the facts. News deadlines are insane. Journalists sometimes have to cover a story, write up their script, and be on the air in less than an hour. It’s a noble profession, but they simply don’t have as much time as they need to research and form a balanced response. I witnessed this first-hand in my recent appearance on the evening news. My story about the Energy Billing problems on base went viral and was covered by 3 local news stations! Yet all 3 channels told a slightly different story. The 2 stations that interviewed me were very good at sharing ‘my side’ of the story, but they weren’t able to get a statement from the base, because the story was rushed to air. The issue reached Congressman Issa, who was interviewed on a 3rd station. This interview didn’t quote any military spouses and showed only the government’s side of the story. Three different news stations failed to get the full story because they didn’t have time to interview both sides. So when you hear people freaking out over ‘alternate facts’ and numbers, remember that no one is perfect, and journalists do not always receive 100% accurate information. That’s why their statements can be retracted or edited later.
- Every story is at the mercy of an editor. I learned this a long time ago, when I was writing for my college newspaper. Sometimes, after interviewing, I would form an opinion about a story. I worked hard to tell the truth, but let readers draw their own conclusions. However, my editor quickly let me know if he disagreed with me. By adding a comma here or a random fact there, he could lead the reader in the opposite direction. I fought him often about wording, and soon learned that a few well-placed words can make an otherwise balanced story become biased. I see this all the time in professional, mainstream news stories—not just CNN, but Fox News, too, and every newspaper. Even when a journalist is doing their job, they still have to follow their editor, who is the one selling the brand. The brand creates a narrative, and they have to stick with it, whether or not facts always agree.
- Photos and sound bites capture a moment, but rarely show the whole truth. I sometimes think pictures and sound bites are the least reliable information I see online. Not only can they be digitally altered, but they can also be taken completely out of context. Remember swimmer Michael Phelps during the past Olympics? He became more famous for his grumpy “Phelps face” memes than for the record amount of gold medals he won! A sound bite containing a single word or sentence might be lifted from a half-hour interview, where it originally made more sense. Some photos and videos are designed as jokes, but then taken seriously… or they might be footage from years ago. Just remember: images and videos are designed to catch your attention. They are selling you a brand or an opinion. Before you jump to conclusions, it is best to research the whole situation: read the quote in context, watch the full interview, see if the photo is fake, etc.
- Fake news is a real thing (and has been happening for years). In the past, it was called clickbait. Because Facebook rewards posts that have more comments and likes, companies have learned that it pays to post controversial or even inaccurate information. People rarely read full articles. They skim headlines and look at pictures. So, any social media user looking to grow an audience will sprinkle in some posts with sensationalist headlines. Every person who comments “This is wrong and here’s why…” is still feeding into the ratings machine, which makes the post visible to more users. Because ad companies pay influencers based on their ‘reach,’ Facebook pages don’t care if they are sharing factual information. They just want to increase their numbers and demonstrate that their audience is engaged. That’s why viral posts are often infuriating and inflammatory. They were designed that way!
- Once something is posted and shared, you can’t take it back. If you care more about getting an emotional response than actually getting facts, then you might like social media. Unfortunately, if something is misinterpreted or misquoted on Twitter or Facebook, you can’t really take it back. Like when a reporter tweeted that President Trump had removed MLK’s bust from the Oval Office, and people jumped to racist explanations. It turned out to be false. Thousands of people shared the original post, but probably never saw the reporter’s apology. So you obviously shouldn’t believe everything you see, especially on Facebook and Twitter. They aren’t news sources. They are platforms designed to engage an audience and keep them talking, even if the audience is talking about a bunch of misinformation.
Where does this leave us? Well, I confess I have mixed feelings about the current state of news in America. On one hand, I want to remain engaged, and be an informed and educated citizen. I don’t want to bury my head in the sand when important decisions are being made in Washington.
However… I simply do not have the time to fact-check everything I see online, even from ‘legitimate’ news sources. There are not enough hours in the day to watch every complete interview and determine the context of every quote or photo. And if I’m being honest, no amount of research is going to make me an expert on foreign policy, or the education system, or women’s reproductive rights in foreign countries. That’s why we have elected officials and their advisors.
When we lived overseas for 3 years, we only had 1 American news channel. It cycled through the major news networks at different times of the day. But the time difference meant we hardly ever saw primetime news. After a while, we learned to not bother watching. And we hardly missed it at all. During deployments, I usually avoid watching the news. Not only are their military reports unsettling, but they are often downright inaccurate.
So, after wasting many, many hours recently trying to follow as much as possible about the new President, I have decided to take a different approach. I don’t gain anything from the fear-mongering and anxious headlines of many news sources. They mostly seem to be ‘much ado about nothing’ or an awful lot of ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ And I certainly don’t make any progress trying to understand people’s opinions online.
What I can do: focus on what I actually do well. I can spend my time writing and supporting the military community, making sure to connect with real people. I can shape the future by focusing on my children and creating a nurturing home environment. I can contact my representatives and let them know what values are important to this voter. Finally, I can keep an open mind. Instead of jumping to conclusions about things I see in the media, I can remember that there is usually a logical explanation or another side to the story. Instead of focusing on divisive differences, I can remember that all Americans are human beings, and we all want the same basic rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.