Miles Stephenson: New media, the solution to sensationalism

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 5:12pm

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The Michigan Daily

As a journalist, I often think about the best way to get stories and information to people. I try to lead with curiosity over sensationalism, and I try to posit two opposing ideas equally when I speak to someone who has come to a different conclusion. Recently, however, traditional media has been criticized for pushing agendas at the expense of honest inquiry. Last month, major broadcast companies took a 20 second snippet of a one hour video from an incident at the Lincoln Memorial and adjudicated a group of teenage boys from Covington Catholic High School as racists for ostensibly mocking the drumming and singing of Nathan Phillips, a Native American military veteran.

Not long after, the full video surfaced showing that indeed it was Phillips who approached the group of boys and acted as the aggressor, banging a drum in their faces as he ploughed through the crowd. On “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg said “many people admitted they made snap judgments before these other facts came in.” What America witnessed in the Lincoln Memorial incident was the sensationalist reporting that old media lends itself to. From this incident, and many others we have seen recently, we are witnessing an emergent media revolution. This change comes at a time when the podcast and other long-form, more deliberate and contemplative content alleviates the pitfalls of politically-biased mouthpieces that rush to judgment and disseminate inaccurate reporting to attract views or push agendas.

Six corporations control 90 percent of the media in the United States, so it's no surprise that it can sometimes appear to a viewer that they are being fed a specific viewpoint of the world. The preponderant cable and network news organizations all have an undeniable bias, their claims of objectivity notwithstanding. Consumers are guilty as well, as our tendencies towards intellectual safe zones leave us wading into the same political pool that our parents, or other life influences, first threw us into until we begin to actively seek out information that confirms our own biases. One viewer sees the Covington student Nick Sandmann in his red “Make America Great Again” hat and knows him to be the face of bigotry, and another sees an aggressive adult drumming in the face of a boy who doesn’t know what to do about the crowd and recording iPhones encircling him.

The major shortcoming of sensationalist media is that these dialogues are not unfolding in a controlled setting with two respectful speakers. They are spilling out in the comment sections of videos uploaded for clicks and views and in traditional media talk shows. These talk shows or news commentary shows have become so predictable in their format that you can essentially guess every word to come out of the speakers’ mouths before they open them.

First, they invite a guest on with the weakest, most radical argument from the opposing political side. Then the host, often a hyper-articulate or at least aggressively assertive and persuasive talking head, proceeds to lambast them on national television with ad hominems, and attempts to use this vanquished nematode as the standard for the entire political left or right. At the end of the segment, before a commercial break about the Super Bowl, the host looks at the camera with a smirk that says, “See? This is what they are all like. So you should see the folly in their ideas and join us!”

What does this accomplish? Nothing besides a couple moments of polemic entertainment at the cost of increased political polarization. No important issue dissected, no bridge built to a better dialogue and no bipartisan solution. Unfortunately, this is the kind of carnage that skyrockets ratings, attracts advertisers and inflates network staff salaries. It seems this everlasting cycle has ensnared American media producers and consumers in two opposing echo chambers and muddied the aisle, preventing anyone from making their way across.

Or perhaps not. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and philosopher of the intellectual dark web, discusses this phenomenon as an issue of bandwidth. Talk shows and panels supply their guests only a few minutes before commercial breaks to hash out complex and controversial ideas. This shortage of time dilutes the conversation and incentivizes speakers and guests to be quick-witted and contentious — but not necessarily intellectually honest. The solution to this seems to be the long-form discussion, now accessed through podcasts. In these conversations, thinkers can sit for hours, broker criticism, concede points from their opponents and discuss at length issues like the dogmatic elements of religion, the issue of free speech on college campuses or what to do about the dispossessed of developing civilizations. This development occured because of a new technology that allows impromptu conversations to unfold in front of millions across the world, their auditory format allowing consumers to engage with the content during found time (while they’re walking their dog, driving to work or doing the dishes). Here, complex issues are given a wide pasture to roam. No pyrotechnics, no chyron-driven “gotchas,” just people addressing issues in a thoughtful way.

An American media ecosystem that once believed your message had to be quick and flashy to get views is now learning that podcast luminaries like Joe Rogan, Hila and Ethan Klein, Dave Rubin and Sam Harris are orbited by crowds in the millions, eager to hear voices from nearly every industry. Paleontologists, heavyweight boxing champions, neuroscientists, philosophers, activists and Navy SEALS — this diverse field of professionals and can offer the average consumer an insight into some of the most novel and fascinating ideas anywhere on the planet. As much as they are places to philosophize, these podcasts also handle everyday, headline issues and can tease out the truth more thoughtfully and sensitively than a 90 second panel of loudmouth pundits.

In the new media format, the Lincoln Memorial incident could have been analyzed at length and evidenced with the full video in proper context. Perhaps the host would have watched the entire video during the podcast and commented moment-by-moment about the evolution of the conflict. Perhaps the high school boys wouldn’t have received death threats and viewers would have noticed other radical groups at the memorial who were actually shouting hateful language. Any approach other than the impulsive and inaccurate commentary that was spewed by our leading media outlets would have been preferable. These new media thinkers, their more considerate format and the technology they use to reach audiences might be just what we need to receive and process information more responsibly in the modern world.

Miles Stephenson can be reached at mvsteph@umich.edu.