Bad (Mainstream) News

Mainstream news stations seem oblivious that the news they’re reporting has grown increasingly absurdist. CNN uses unecfessary “holograms” to demonstrate crucial information like what an airplane looks like. MSNBC and Fox make a living by playing in the gutter. This video sums things up nicely:

At least comedy news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report acknowledge the absurdity. As CNN continues with Day 42 of its Flight 370 coverage, it’s hard to say that Stewart and Colbert are the ridiculous ones. Even The Onion has standards.

How bad is the news, and what’s the worst news source? Anecdotally, left-leaning readers will answer “Fox News” while right-leaning readers will answer “MSNBC.” In the interest of finding out scientifically, I took a look at the nonpartisan Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2013 report.

Pew Research Center State of the News 2013

If we’re judging quality based on the ratio of facts to opinion/commentary, CNN is actually the winner, with 54% factual reporting. Fox News comes in second with 45% facts and 55% commentary, and MSNBC takes the rear with 15% factual reporting and 85% commentary.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story, however, so there are a few other things to remember:

  • News can be factual without being comprehensive. Selecting which facts to report and which to ignore is itself a form of bias.
  • Commentary is not necessarily the same as opinion. Commentary can be used to provide historical context and emphasize connections between facts.
  • The definition of “news” has become increasingly loose. Many of the facts being reported by these stations has no bearing on anyone’s lives, so does it really count as news?

The real lesson here is that television news is inherently untrustworthy. The scramble for ratings means that sensationalism will trump journalism any day.

Other news sources aren’t immune from this, but I’ve found the quality elsewhere to be much higher than CNN, Fox, or MSNBC can provide. I personally read the New York Times and Politico daily, with a smattering of foreign sources as issues require.

I’ll end with a quote from Neil Postman’s seminal Amusing Ourselves to Death:

I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.