Back in the 1980s a phrase popped up to describe how many news outlets approach their reporting:
If it bleeds, it leads
A lot of news outlets have a tendency to focus on gruesome and macabre stories. I think this is still true today, except that with our country being so deeply divided, what’s bleeding is the nation itself, and I believe far too much news reporting serves to maintain and worsen the division.
Take the unfortunate case of TIME White House correspondent Zeke Miller and the Martin Luther King Jr. bust in the Oval Office as an example. He saw a bust of Winston Churchill in a new spot and didn’t see the MLK bust. When reporters asked him specifically about the MLK bust, he said he didn’t see it. This immediately became a sensational story widely reported that the MLK bust had been removed from the Oval Office. This was just a matter of days after the MLK national holiday. Needless to say, a wave of outrage erupted on social media among those offended by such a move.
Miller immediately took many actions to correct his error, but the damage was already more than done. People who are anti-Trump now had one more thing to support their anti-Trump feelings. Hopefully everyone understands now that the reports of the bust being removed were not true. But the feelings of outrage and anger still had to run their course, deepening the wound that divides our nation.
TIME, for its part, has called the whole thing one very unfortunate mistake, not deliberately false reporting. In one sense, I don’t think it really matters whether it was a mistake or deliberate, because either way the story had a real impact on people. Of course it does matter in terms of Miller’s integrity as a reporter.
I can’t get inside Miller’s head to know what was going on in there. I can easily imagine one unflattering scenario: “There’s the bust of Winston Churchill in a different place. Curious. Wait a minute, I don’t see the MLK bust. What’s up with that? Was it removed? Wow, what a story it would be if the MLK bust were removed from the Oval Office so close to the MLK holiday. Boy would that get a lot of people riled up!” But just because Miller didn’t see the MLK bust doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. I can’t help but wonder if maybe he was a little too eager to find something controversial to report. His little “mistake” resulted in a media eruption about the bust having been removed. The division gets a little deeper and little wider, and a correction doesn’t undo that damage.
This is just one example of many I could highlight. Then you’ve got all the blatantly “fake news” that is entirely made up, and lots of news that has some fake news mixed in with true news, and lots of news that is clearly biased, whether left-leaning or right-leaning. What is clear to me is this: Too much news reporting serves to keep us more divided than we might otherwise be. But I also have to say the media doesn’t shoulder all the blame for this. Consumers of news share responsibility as well.
The whole if-it-bleeds-it-leads is a news strategy because it works! In this sense, the news is just giving people what they apparently want, right? This is every bit as much of a problem as all the biased and false reporting – our willingness to consume it. There is a tendency for people to see what they want to see, to consume the news that reinforces their own views and opinions, whether it turns out to be true or not.
Irresponsible and unethical journalism keeps us divided, but so does our own irresponsible consumption of that news. What’s the antidote to this dilemma? First, we have to do whatever we can to verify news before sharing it. Second, we must be willing to question all news, even from what we think are trusted sources. Third, we can keep an open mind to opposing viewpoints. Fourth, we can be willing to engage in thoughtful, polite, respectful discussion of important topics with those who hold different opinions. I hope and pray we all do better in fostering mutual understanding and finding common ground because our collective future depends upon it.