In a shocking twist of metatextual content, I’m going to use this week’s column to talk about the news.
A couple of years ago, I began working at the DP in the news department before transferring to the opinion section. Strangely enough, the complaints that come to both departments are eerily similar. People dismissed the news for not reflecting their opinion and derided opinion for not reflecting what they saw as fact.
And of course, many people that I know — friends, family and administrators included — have told be at some point that they dislike the DP, or distrust journalists and the news as a whole, which is a great thing to tell the girl writing for her school paper.
Personal insult aside, that is troubling, because it indicates a dissonance in what those in the news media believe they are doing and what the public thinks that they do, a rift especially alarming in today’s incredibly media-overloaded society.
What I have learned is that people consume news media as a monolith and are unaware of how it is actually made and functions. People — speaking broadly — expect one thing and receive another. Consequently, both the writer and the receiver leave frustrated — the writer at not getting their message across, the reader at not having their own mind reflected back at them.
First, a brief lesson: an opinion column is a piece of writing that relies on the author’s subjective beliefs, discussing a particular issue and coming to a conclusion about it.
A news article is a piece of writing that reports what happened at a particular place and time, often including eyewitness reports and an objective take on the subject.
The former is — as labeled — an opinion. The latter is fact, or as close to fact as the reporter can get. The former, subjective; the latter, objective. Communication problems arise when readership assumes that the former is the latter and vice versa.
Of course, this situation assumes a perfect world filled with ethically perfect, intelligent reporters and columnists. And yet, even in this perfect world, the two categories are conflated by the readership. But let’s move from models and into reality, where writers don’t know what they’re doing and the points don’t matter. Assume incompetence, distributed equally amongst readers and writers alike.
I’m not saying all journalism is bad journalism. Far from it — I skim three different publications a day, and it would be hypocritical for me to dismiss the institution. My point is simply that readers conflate news with opinion, and good with bad.
But the standards of what is considered “journalism” by the public has fallen, and if you want proof, go check out Buzzfeed’s quizzes such as “Can you guess which prom dress is the most expensive?” and “Can you pick the healthiest pizza?” — or read Ben Facey’s piece on why The Odyssey Online is objectively awful.
This is where the writer fails. The line between “fact” and “opinion” is being blurred. We, as a collective culture, aren’t creating clear distinctions between information and spin anymore. As with all things, a few morally questionable sites and writers spoil the bunch. And you, dear reader, along with everyone else reading, are being duped.
I gave you the definitions of what a column and an article are supposed to be, as opposed to what they actually become — your misunderstanding of journalism isn’t completely your fault.
There’s a body of evidence that suggests that people believe information that is written down, simply because it is written. We’re primed to believe the written word, even when that writing comes from questionable sources. (Though many don’t even question what the source is). The bias toward information that confirms preexisting values, further exacerbated by the tendency to look for news about things they already care about, also leads people astray. And, last of all, emotion confers bias as well — a sob story will convince most far quicker than facts and figures, meaning that particularly emotionally manipulative content has a far better chance of swaying the minds of the average reader than a completely accurate, dry article.
Belief, fact, opinion and truth are all different things.
Just because someone doesn’t agree with you doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, but it might. In this rhetoric-based wild west, you have to understand both who is writing your articles and why they’re writing them, as well as what publication — whether that be The New York Times or their personal blog — they’re writing for.
To put it bluntly, standards are no longer standard, and perhaps never were.
We should all be applying the same skills that we’re supposed to be learning at Penn — i.e. critical thinking — to consider what we’re reading. The fact that some journalism is inaccurate is the fault of the writer, but the complete conflation of opinion and fact is often on the part of the reader. Bemoaning the fact that “you can’t trust the news” is immature, rooted in the expectation that everyone universally is trying to be accurate — not trying to sell you something. Interaction with media is a two-way street, and there is no excuse for pinning all the blame completely on newspapers.
Being unclear on how an institution works, and then interacting with it incorrectly puts the onus on the individual, not the institution. “I didn’t know” is never an excuse — for either the writer or the reader.
Blind belief is idiotic, misunderstanding of the game more so — but hey, this is just an opinion.
ISABEL KIM is a rising junior in the College majoring in English and Fine Arts from Warren, NJ. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Serious Business” appears every other Thursday.
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