A Guide to Maneuvering the News Media

Contemporary journalism faces a lot of criticism regarding the quality of news content. In the high-choice media environment that exists today, news organizations are in constant competition to gain the attention of media consumers. When cable television was first introduced, news outlets had a simpler agenda, as the ability to inform citizens of important civic information any time was unprecedented, and there were only a select number of channels offered. Now, the Internet has allowed for endless amounts of information to be readily accessible to anyone, any time, creating intense competition between news outlets and causing them to become heavily profit-driven. Since profit comes first, journalists tend to publish stories that are controversial and manipulative in order to attract as much attention as possible. In order to help media users maneuver our complicated and continually changing media environment, I’ll help you recognize some troubling styles of news that are important to look out for.

It’s crucial for all news consumers to understand and acknowledge what the goals of real journalism are before engaging with news content. Journalists are meant to serve as a watchdog for the public, inform citizens, seek the truth, and provide an open forum for discussion. If you encounter a news story that appears to have alternate motives beyond these four, there is a good chance this news is attempting to manipulate you. Partisan media are increasingly prevalent in the news environment, which are opinionated media outlets with framed, spun, or slanted stories focused on advancing a particular agenda, political or not. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between partisan and non-partisan sources, which is why many opinion pieces are effective in manipulating their audience. Don’t be too cynical, because most news coverage is centrist, but it’s still important to look out for these qualities in order to ensure your values are not being influenced by misleading or bias content.

Other concerning styles of news media include sensationalism and tabloidization, which are stories that are covered for emotional, outrageous, or exaggerated effect. This type of coverage is increasingly prominent in contemporary news coverage and can affect how people view the world. These styling choices can be problematic because they are entertainment-oriented rather than informative, and often present distortions of the truth for dramatic effect. Sensationalized stories take away from important news, as people are more interested in crime, sports and celebrity gossip than stories covering topics such as politics, public affairs, or civic culture. If you come across stories with content focusing on disasters or scandals, or a story told as someone’s emotional testimony, chances are high that the news was sensationalized.

Tabloidization consists of news that is exaggerated, unfair, and bias. Techniques for this type of journalism include selective reporting, where certain aspects of a story are either heightened or dismissed completely in order to create the desired effect, which can be very misleading for media consumers. This style aims to appeal to the emotions of the reader by focusing on outrage, scandals, and trivial matters. Real, fair news should be honest and impartial, and free from self-interest, prejudice or favoritism. This means using fair language, presenting fair evidence, and making a transparent effort to include all appropriate information. If you notice that the story you’re engaging with provokes a visceral response, uses overgeneralizations, and limits a reasonable discussion, then you’ve encountered tabloid news.

Propaganda is another prominent form of manipulative media and can come in many forms that are not as easily recognizable as you may assume. For one, there are many instances of fake or hijacked social media accounts. Another similar style of propaganda is bots, which are automated social media accounts meant to mimic real people. These illegitimate accounts can artificially boost content in the form of likes, retweets, and followers in order to manufacture a consensus that appears to be widespread and summarize popular opinion, but is actually completely fabricated. Bots were particularly prevalent during the 2016 presidential election and continued to have influence post-election. Another type of propaganda comes in the form of online advertisements or false news articles. This can include misinformation, which is information that was not intentionally meant to deceive, but is still false, or disinformation, which describes fake information that was purposely shared in order to manipulate an audience. Propaganda is particularly concerning not only because it intends to trick news consumers, but also because it tends to attract even more attention than real news stories, as they are usually controversial in nature. It’s important to look out for propaganda, particularly in regard to politics, in order to avoid being misled or misinformed.​

“Fake news” is a term that has been thrown around a lot recently, and was particularly made famous by our president, Donald Trump. Although there are many forms of manipulative and false news, including information that is completely fabricated, I want to clarify that the term “fake news” was invented as a form of manipulation itself in order to discredit negative news stories that politicians or other individuals do not want to be associated with. This term is also used when followers of someone being criticized in the news media don’t want to believe or admit to a certain claim. It’s particularly dangerous because it not only discredits that particular accusation, but also creates confusion, decreasing the public’s trust with the news media from that point on – a very powerful and manipulative strategy. There are many cases of actually false news, but be careful when using or encountering the term “fake news”, as it was essentially made-up for the purpose of deceit and promotion of distrust in the news.

As someone who hopes to be a journalist someday, it’s sometimes hard to accept the reality of our media environment, as it makes me feel very cynical about news, like many other citizens. But I want to stress that not all news is created with the sole intention of making a profit or manipulating readers’ values and ideas. Journalists still work with the intention of being a watchdog and informing the public of the truth, so do not assume that everything you read intends to deceive you. Part of the role of journalists is to be critical and investigate those in power in order to expose corruption and inspire a better world, so it’s important to not simply dismiss critical stories, as negativity does not always mean that a journalist is being biased, pushing an agenda, or are supplying “fake news”. Keep an open mind when engaging with the news, but stay steadfast in your beliefs and don’t let manipulative news media change your values.


Image courtesy of upfrontscholastic.com.