Can the media be relied on, to tell the truth? An independent 2015 PolitiFact article found that Fox and Fox News was the worst news media with 60% of mostly false. The use of sensationalism to spur readership, external influence from other parties, as well as the subjective nature of the ‘truth’, are convincing reasons why we cannot always expect or trust the media to adhere to such an ideal.
Source: 2015 PolitiFact on Fox and Fox News
How can we sieve through the different messages for reliable and trustworthy information, however, remains the big question to be answered. While the media’s traditional role of providing necessary information for the day-to-day running of the world has been upheld and maintained by several established agencies boasting of rigorous standards of reporting, the view that they can always be trusted is perhaps too one-sided.
Media compelled to tell the truth.
It can be tempting to conveniently trust the media at all times, given that societies that champion freedom of speech and exchanges of ideas constantly prompt the media to portray the facts as accurately as possible.
These days, any mistake or questionable intention will be quickly exposed by individuals with access to the proliferation of media content. with fast and wide-ranging access to the internet, consumers of the mass media have become exposed to more schools of thought and become more critical. This makes it nearly pointless for anyone with ill intentions to fabricate or twist the truth. For instance:
- A 2015 partnership between the independent paper Tampa Bay Times and Politifact, a website that checks against claims made by pundits, columnists, bloggers, and political analysts, cited Fox News as the most unreliable news agency in the United States of America, with 60% of their news ‘facts’ termed as lies.
- The Dive Campaign for Real Beauty, which started in 2004 and ran for a decade, was also heavily criticized after initially earning some plaudits. Packages as a movement to support self-confidence in women who did not naturally meet societal standards of beauty, many quickly found out that its parent company, Unilever, also owned Axe and Fair & Lovely - 2 brands with messages that directly contradict the Dove campaign.
The constant scrutinize from the public and independent agencies alike is surely making false or hidden messaging a highly unwise move for media outlets.
Truth is where the value lies
With globalization undoubtedly making the industry more competitive, coupled with the need to remain relevant and bring in profits, media outlets have seen the need to focus on their core business of delivering accurate facts.
In recent decades, the rise in the number of independent newspapers and the increasing popularity of citizenship journalism has put pressure on everyone in the industry. These news agencies see the importance of ensuring that they can retain and expand their base of customers.
- The New York Times, BBC, and The Economist regularly stand out as the most reputable information sources that are credible and reliable. The BBC for example topped the charts for the most trustworthy news source in both the United States and the United Kingdom in 2015. As a result, they mastered a record-breaking weekly global audience of 308 million people or 1 in every 16 adults in the world.
From this, we can tell that news agencies are motivated by the profit-seeking motive that drives their companies, providing the masses with the most accurate information possible.
When the media decides to tamper with the truth
When we think more deeply about the profit-making motive that power media outlets subscribe to, it is unsurprising to find that they sensationalize issues to shock and awe in a bid to increase or sustain readership and viewership.
As Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor from the New York University, affirmed, “humans are wired, probably for reasons of natural selection, to be alert and to sensations, particularly those involving sex and violence.”
- Tabloids and ‘Yellow Journalism’, which focus on exaggeration, scandal-mongering, or poorly researched news, frequently sell well with the lowbrow content and mix of slang. The Daily Mail, of the United Kingdom, took over The New York Times as the most popular online news in 2012.
As such, it is understandable that the media would willingly pander to such an audience's preferences and jeopardize their credibility in the process.
The media also cannot always be relied on to reveal the facts in all honesty as it is often largely influenced, or even controlled by the government or major companies and organizations.
These entities possess vested interests that are likely to be taken into account when news stories are chosen, written, and presented. This essentially means that the presented information, or lack of it, holds the ability to affect the way consumers perceive an issue.
- Media mogul Rupert Murdoch holds a significant share of the world’s media. With News Corp and 21st Century Fox just two of the many firms under his wing, his influence does not come as a surprise. Indeed, Murdoch has been synonymous with media manipulation and political demagoguery from his early years in Australia.
Evidently, governments and huge, powerful companies can have a profound capacity to influence the way media outlets select, craft, and phrase information based on their best interest.
The relativity and reality of ‘Truth’
While we consider the various arguments that question the reliability of the media, we must also acknowledge that the idea and definition of ‘truth’ are highly subjective and differs across individuals.
Most reporters honor the Journalist’s Creed and try their best to be objective and balanced. However, the reporter’s earnest report of what he or she sees as the truth is unlikely to make sense to another person of different feelings, perspectives, opinions, and experiences.
- Karen DeYoung, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, illustrated this exact argument. She expressed that ‘ideally’, any ‘subjectivity’ that exists in the news media is due to one’s ‘own knowledge and expertise, rather than any ‘personal bias you might have.
- Italian photographer Salvadori raised a challenge against the expectations of objective truth that the general public usually associates with photojournalism. In 2011, he kicked start ‘Photojournalism Behind the Scenes, a project that gave many insights into conflict photography and helped them understand the inevitable subjectivity that the field involves, whether or not the photographer chooses to be subjective.
Following this line of logic, a report can be true from one perspective, but false when looked on from another. As such, it is too idealistic to expect that reporters are able to cover the whole spectrum of views that can encapsulate the totality of reality.
In a nutshell
Living in the Information Age, we are surrounded by more data, messages, and facts than any other point in the history of mankind. With techno-savviness becoming an increasingly common trait that can be used to describe the layman, we have large scores of reported facts at our fingertips.
I hope this article has helped readers to develop a better understanding of the nature of the media, their functions, and the idealistic and subjective nature of ‘the truth’. As consumers of information, it is important to exercise critical awareness to ensure that informed judgments or conclusions on issues can be made from the contents presented by the media.
Looking to start a media business or leverage the power of media to give your business a boost?
Perhaps it is worth considering not just your return-on-investment (ROI) but also the level of objectivity of your content in the eyes of your prospects. Presenting your news, blog posts, advertisements, and/or podcasts in an overly biased, unobjective manner, or fabricating ‘facts’ to achieve your intended outcomes, intentionally or unintentionally, may instead result in adverse consequences.