I’ve been on vacation for the past week and only sporadically checking in on social networks and news sites to see what is going on in the world. Yesterday Twitter was filled with references, quips, and questions about Shirley Sherrod. After trolling through a wide array of tweets I still had no idea what the story was about. After searching Google News, I still only got partial insights and mostly reflections on a story I had already missed. This is what Matt Thompson has so expertly called the crisis of context that we are facing in so much of our media right now.
However, what I did get from those early tweets and news clips, was the sense of a fight unfolding. The narrative was clear and people’s passionate and angry tweets, full of opinion, only amplified that. Whatever the facts of the case, this story was about a battle playing out. The war metaphor has taken such a strong hold of our culture and our news media, that I worry sometimes we have lost the ability to tell other stories about American politics and as such we are losing other ways of understanding the issues and people around us.
A little more than six months ago the Copenhagen Climate Summit and the Senate debate of the healthcare bill came to an end. These are the key issues of our generation, and these events will in part define the health of our citizens and the health of the planet. Not only did these important conversations hold the potential to catalyze real change, they also should have been models of how we might lead in this new century. However, like the Shirley Sherrod case, the media’s coverage of these vital debates left me feeling hungover, instead of feeling high.
If ever we needed the media it is now. We are at war, both formally and informally, on so many fronts. We are facing the prospect of radical changes to our economic system, our healthcare system, and environment. At the same time, the debates and decisions are complicated by incredibly powerful interests, who spend unimaginable amounts of money to secure political influence and sway public opinion. We need the media to cut through these competing interests, to wallow in the nuance of these complex issues, to offer new ways of understanding these problems, and to hold our leaders and ourselves accountable.
Yet, again and again, when we need our media to be looking out for us – they are too busy looking for a fight. This media formula is familiar to anyone who has watched coverage of US elections in the last decade. It is built on the same kind of horse-race coverage that the media has relied on to buoy ratings and sell ads during election years.
There’s lots of reasons why the media falls back on this same old story:
- It’s simple: We all understand that contests have winners and losers – this is a simple tale that resonates throughout our literary and cultural history. However, it’s not only simple, its also simplistic. In defining an issue in just two sides, the media necessarily ignores and silences large portions of the story and the stakeholders.
- It’s cheap: It takes a lot less time and resources to report a story that only has two sides, than to undertake the kind of in-depth research a full accounting of these issues would demand. In addition, two sided stories assume that one side is “right” and thus the media can rely on other people’s definition of truth instead of having to produce new knowledge and understanding. It’s essentially reporting in short hand.
- It’s “fair”: In essence, in this kind of reporting the media identifies the two most powerful influences and gives them both equal “airtime.” This kind of false objectivity or fairness leads to “he-said-she-said” reporting that is closer to stenography than actual journalism. It lets both sides be heard but does nothing to help most people understand the issue any better.
- It’s alluring: In the same way that we intuitively understand the idea of winners and losers, we also are drawn to choosing sides. By reducing an issue like climate change or healthcare reform down to two sides, the media is encouraging people to choose sides – and we often do. Even if neither side really represents our views or our interests fully, we feel pulled to take a side.
The result is that we give up our position. When we align with one of those sides, we give up our stake in the issue, or at least we water it down. We make compromises, because we want “our side” to win. This is not really surprising given that when the media defines the debate as two-sided, it is usually the diverse, competing and complicated public interest that is pushed to the margins.
It is this fact that leads so many on the right to argue that the media is too liberal, and so many on the left to argue that the media is too conservative. The truth is that both sides are right, because what they are really saying is: “When I look at the media, I don’t see enough of my own issues and perspectives being discussed.” I would argue that this is even more true for those in the middle of the political spectrum.
This trend is played out over and over again. We are still in the heat of battle in the case of Shirley Sherrod, but look at climate change and health care. By the time Obama left Denmark and the Senate voted to move ahead with their healthcare bill I was left tired, bitter, and worst of all uncertain about the future (or past) or these two policy debates. That is what this kind of reporting breeds. It sensationalizes our politics, making issues important not for what they mean to the world but because of the drama they produce.
In so doing, they leave us less informed about issues that impact our lives on a daily basis, and turn our most pressing debates about those issues into a spectator sport. We need a media that puts people at the center of these issues, not one that leaves us on the sidelines.
*I wrote this post a few months ago and never published it – just updated it today with some additional reflection on Shirley Sherrod and a recent presentation I heard from Matt Thompson.