Today I started my day the way I usually do: getting the kids off to school, taking care of the dog, and reading the morning headlines over coffee and breakfast. News is my “bag” and lately, I’m a glutton for punishment by keeping up with it. I have no formal training as a journalist, but I do have some thoughts about news consumers that have come together over the last few weeks.
This morning, the breaking headlines were “Trump is ending birthright citizenship.” Most news outlets ran with it. Many people in my social feeds were instantly outraged. While I don’t watch it, I’m sure cable news was filled with “Breaking News.” About ten minutes later, the headlines softened: “Trump *said* he wanted to end birthright citizenship.” Smart journalists added to the headlines and retweets with the important caveat that he can say it all he wants, but of course, he can’t do it by executive order and would instead need to follow the process to overturn the 14th Amendment, which would require Congress and/or the Supreme Court (a way less catchy headline, BTW).
About five minutes after this, NPR tweeted the headline correctly and with the appropriate nuance. I thanked them and the word that kept popping up in my mind was “measured.”
We have almost entirely lost our ability to be measured.
(The irony of using hyperbole in a piece about being measured is recognized.😀)
Cable news (and the connected Internet echo chamber) is exciting. Graphics, live video, breaking news, anticipating what’s next, out of context interview clips that are infuriating, and opinions that get us worked up on both sides. It lights up lots of different areas of the brain: fear, arousal, reward systems, desire for safety. I’m not a neuroscientist either, so I’ll leave that discussion to the people who actually understand it.
Cable news is also on 24 hours a day. They have airtime to fill and fill it they do. Thus, cable news is also largely opinion. Remember when your daily news broadcast had to alert you that an opinion piece was forthcoming? They would read the formal statement and then the opinion author would say his/her piece. We now have nearly 24 hours of mostly opinions being thrown at us, with a sprinkling of factual news in between. If CNN, MSNBC, or Fox had to read the opinion disclaimer before someone spoke on their panels, they would be reading it all day long. News has become opinion, and in that way, Trump can actually claim that there is fake news. It resonates with many, but it’s increasingly dangerous because there is important information that we do need to know. We can’t tune it all out.
This brings me to something my Dad has always said. He and I don’t always agree politically, but we both enjoy a good political argument and are well-informed. His theory is that we were all better informed when we had 15 or 30 minutes of news each day. We would all tune in at 6:00 or 6:30 and have a little bit of local news and a little bit of national news. Journalists, who were trained in their craft, would distill the barrage of data and information coming at us into actual knowledge. They would weed it all out and give us the things we needed to understand the most. Those who wanted the deep dive would read newspapers or periodicals, where fact versus opinion was much more clear. Sure, a newspaper can have an editorial leaning, but opinion pieces are clearly identified.
(I should add, for those who think I want to return to the 1950s or 60s, I also realize that only having a few major news sources can be problematic in many other ways and the expansion of voices being heard is a good thing, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
Creating news for a single daily broadcast allowed us all to be measured. It weeded out headlines (that now get repeated and reinforced incorrectly all day long) about things like “Trump is ending birthright citizenship.” It would have weighed his one statement or his five Tweets with the news of the day and considered whether they were even newsworthy. Being measured means being thoughtful and carefully considering your words and their importance. Everything is not newsworthy, but 24 hour news means it all is.
And the opposite of being measured is something more like arrhythmia. I imagine measured news and discourse like drum beats or heart rhythm. We tune in, we get a predictable type of information or knowledge, we get our important local news, we get our important national news, and we distill that information into our own worlds. It is not meant to excite, necessarily, but to inform. I imagine arrhythmic news and discourse more like 24 hour/cable news. It is heart arrhythmia with peaks of breaking information and opinion and escalations in pulse and dead air filled with non-factual blathering. And then someone gets a tidbit of new information and the defibrillator comes out and gets the heart going again with more breaking news. This news is meant to make money. You must tune in and stay tuned in or you will miss what’s next.
A few weeks ago, my father-in-law visited and my husband was talking about Alexa and how he starts his day with his morning news briefing, which comes from NPR. He told Alexa to read his briefing and after she was done, my father-in-law said, “That was really good news.” He seemed surprised, but it was probably much more like the news he grew up with. It was factual and it wasn’t exciting. Some may even consider it boring. But it was measured. NPR may not break the headline first, but they will generally get it right. It’s also worth remembering that NPR is National Public Radio and doesn’t have the profit motive that for-profit news organizations do.
The ship has sailed on Walter Cronkite at 6:30. We won’t be going back to that model. But we can all do one thing: be measured in our own consumption and sharing of the news. Don’t retweet your instant outrage. Consider your words. Consume only the most impartial sources of journalism, or balance your Fox News or MSNBC with NPR. One wants to make money and the other has a public duty to inform. You wouldn’t take addiction advice from a drug dealer, so consider the opinions they are force-feeding you. Who does it benefit? What do other sources say? What if the opposite is true? Where does the money flow to and from? And before you share a news article, ask yourself the same questions. Beyond, is it a fact piece or an opinion piece? Could it be debunked by Snopes in less than 5 minutes? Who is the source? What is their motivation? Does this seem to align perfectly with my viewpoints? (If so, the world is generally never that tidy. Be cautious.) Does it seem too good or too crazy to be true? (It probably is.)
We are now in the position of asking the questions that journalists did for us in years past. The information comes at us rapidly all day long. We must now weed out the unimportant and politically-motivated stories ourselves. We must be able to identify when the facts stop and the opinions start. No one is telling us that anymore. And we must be careful what we, ourselves, broadcast. We are all now our own news channel broadcasting to everyone on our email contacts list, in our friendship circles, and on our social feeds.
And while you may not think your voice is important, when millions of people share false or politically-motivated “news,” we endanger the whole system. Cronkite once said “Journalism is what we need for democracy to work.” We are all amateur journalists now, and we are doing a lousy job. Our democracy is in danger, and trust me, I considered that word carefully.