Now, now. I know what you’re thinking. A political post? Not a good idea.
I want you to know that you’re right, and that as a currently unemployed single person I do not have the audacity or security to talk politics with those around me, let alone on the internet. But give me a second here. Focus on my headline Did it grab you? Did you just “have to click it” because it sounded interesting? Are you ignoring my amazingly written blog post in hopes of scrolling down to a divisive and political comment section? If you fall into any or all of the categories above you’ve fallen and/or are contributing to a common media trend that will be the ACTUAL discussion of my post – misleading headlines and failure of the media to properly check sources before reporting.
In my last post I discussed how immediate gratification has become toxic on a personal level and has degraded the show Game of Thrones from what it once was. Now I want to take that and apply it on a larger scale.
Whenever taking into account a source – whether it be financial, personal, or otherwise – it of the utmost importance that we realize what are the incentives for the person providing that advice. Is investing in the S&P 500 a good idea? Almost assuredly! Do I need to pay some wall-street investor or other finance driven person to tell me to invest in specific stocks which historically, when accounting for fees and taxes, will underperform a simple index fund? No probably not. But that finance guy’s salary is telling him to tell you that you NEED him because as you may have guessed, he is incentivized to do so. (Shoutout to A Random Walk Down Wallstreet by Burton Malkiel)
In the interest of fairness before continuing I will disclose my incentives for this post. First and foremost I am required to write a post every two weeks for academic credit. Secondly and why I chose this topic specifically is because as someone who wants to dedicate their life to advertising/media and the spread of information, I’d like to believe that the field I’m going to is still viewed with some integrity and can as a whole be improved greatly so that it brings much more good into the world than bad.
So how does this whole concept of incentives apply to the media? Well before the internet really took over and newspapers were our primary source of media a lot of journalists/writers had to take time to prepare stories, check sources etc (at least to some degree). And if you messed up, you might live forever in infamy.
Media now a days is incentivized to get the story to you as fast as possible. Miss out on it and they lose readership because we as a whole want to know what’s going on at this very moment – if they don’t have it we will watch somewhere else. If we watch somewhere else, they lose advertisers. They lose advertisers, they shut down. To most of my readership this is probably of little to no surprise – but exactly how damaging can this become?
First lets look at one consequence from a financial standpoint:
As you may know the subject of my headline has a great infatuation with the use of twitter and given his position as POTUS – he tends to be viewed as some source of credibility. After sending one tweet – ““Toyota Motor said will build a new plant in Baja, Mexico, to build Corolla cars for U.S. NO WAY! Build plant in U.S. or pay big border tax.” – the immediate belief or at least fear that people would believe such a statement caused Toyota’s stock to tumble 1.2 billion dollars in 5 minutes. 1.2 billion dollars. 5 minutes. Let that sink in. That’s one tweet. Whether or not you think it was true, that immediate impact is insanity and something we need to as a whole be aware of. Toyota wound up building that plant in Alabama, and whether or not that was an intentional strategy by our President to pressure to Toyota to keep that firm in the US, that instant reporting cost a company billions. Just imagine if Trump decided to send a poorly researched tweet regarding Facebook and their stocks went tumbling. Would you be happy if you’d invested?
Our economy, particularly our stock market is built on perceived value – not actual value. If people are misinformed so too are their perceptions and thus real economic impact is the result.
Now lets look at a more social consequence:
By mis-reporting news in an attempt to get produce more media faster, news sources begin to lose credibility amongst their following. When the audience comes to expect mistakes in news, they are more susceptible to news outlets that are illegitimate or “fake news”. People trusting in such fake news websites can be mislead to due something as mundane as mess up a cooking recipe, while doing something as serious casting/abstaining a vote for a presidential nominee.
For another example lets look as Cosmopolitan who sent out this lovely tweet.
Sounds good right?
Well…. turns out that that Cosmopolitan didn’t do their research and the woman actually was losing the weight because of a rare form of cancer. But to the girls (or boys) struggling with weight issues who saw this? Now there’s a strong possibility that they’ll be looking for a “quick and easy” solution to weight loss rather than focusing on eating healthier and exercising. See the media likes to advertise these “quick solutions” because they get more clicks – but such posts are extremely toxic to the audience. Particularly kids and teens who spend a disproportionate amount of time online and whom are easily influenced by media. Perhaps an even more concrete example would be the Rolling Stones coverage of sexual assault on UVA’s campus – a story which was found to be discredited. This mis-reporting led not only to the harassment of the school president and social torture for the men accused, but gave credence and justification to those who claim that most sexual harassment claims are fake. This is not the case statistically, with 2-7% of claims estimated to be unsubstantiated*. This could result in more intimidation for victims and a lessening of willingness to speak out.
Misleading headlines can also really hurt academia. In my Understanding the Social World psychology class we had the displeasure of reading a long research study titled “Imitation of novel conspecific and human speech sounds in the killer whale (Orcinus orca)”. I’ll spare you the details and tell you the findings of the study concluded that Killer Whales produce sounds similar to humans when prompted to copy them. Why am I bringing this up? Well a news article covering the study led with the headline “Orcas Can Imitate Human Speech – study reveals”. Reading that headline makes me think that should I go up to an orca and say hello, I can expect the orca to say hello back.
Obviously that is not the case. So again what is the issue? By misreporting the media is again discrediting the legitimate work. This again creates the issue of a misinformed audience who either passes along this ignorance or if they are bright enough to investigate the source (which for some reason I do not believe many would like to read the actual research) will lead to increasing feelings of distrust towards media overall. Or perhaps they will think the research is silly and actually blame the research, thus creating distrust towards academia as a whole.
I’d like to close with the idea that while this whole post may seem very negative towards the media, I have a strong faith that most media outlets and journalists are doing there best to simply create and spread the most accurate information as possible. There are countless examples of the good that proper reporting can result in. I could sit here and list the benefit that instantaneous media has had in recent years, whether it be the work of Boston Globe’s “Spotlight team” or the emergence and large coverage of the #MeToo movement. Instantaneous media can also result in stories/ads like we’ve never seen before and never would have seen without such abilities. *cough*The media is for the most part, wonderful and deserving of trust. But they need to be careful. And we need to choose selectively whom and what we follow, even if they aren’t necessarily the first ones to report on it.
I’d love to think that in the future we can find a lovely medium between reporting on time and reporting accurately. If not well…