We apparently live in a “post-truth” world, where debates and decisions are increasingly removed from facts. Pundits point to the populace’s loss of trust in the mass media, now at record lows. Part of the blame, they argue, lies with the industry and so-called fake news, fueled by technologies that rapidly propagate lies, rumor, and gossip instead of accurate information.
True or not, the uproar really is not about what the public sees, but who controls it.
The real, and hard, truth is that news, information and opinion has always been designed to portray events in a certain way, to influence decisions, and to achieve specified outcomes. News has always been an exercise in shaping what people think about (agenda) and increasingly, what to think about those things (opinion). In his seminal 1922 book “Public Opinion,” commentator Walter Lippmann identified that news media provides the link between actual events and people’s image of those events. Four decades later, media theorist Marshall McLuhan observed that the media’s purpose was to create artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.
Indeed, the fundamentals of news reporting have remained relatively unaltered over time, in the following ways:
First, news presents itself as fact, an accurate record of events or knowledge that one does not experience directly. But the informational content is always the rendering of recollections and interpretations, filtered through the complex lens of opinion, preconception, world view, and motive.
Second, what is reported is a function of logistics. It must be known. It must be timely to accommodate the news cycle or schedule. The item must be the right size. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld was astonished that the amount of news in the world every day always exactly fit the newspaper. Today, all news must neatly fit available time on TV, online constraints, or the 140 characters of a tweet.
Third, news items must be familiar. Direct, easy to explain or interpret items are preferred. Drama, violence, conflict, or the sudden and unexpected gains elevated importance. Events that are personal or can be humanized through individuals or, increasingly, a star journalist are favored. Items involving well-known individuals, nations, or organizations are deemed more newsworthy.
Fourth, commercial pressures and competition between rival media or individual reporters also influence coverage. The need to attract and maintain subscribers and advertising is never-ending.
Fifth, news has always been ideological. As author Helen Swaffer wrote: “Freedom of the press…is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers won’t object to.”
The advent of electronic media, especially online platforms, has not altered these basic dynamics. It has, though, weakened the ability to enforce authority, power, and influence from the top to the public. New media essentially has flattened the hierarchial delivery of news, allowing the same event to be packaged for individual tribes, and targeting specific pre-existing biases. Information can now be shared within networks where credibility is based on members’ mutual trust rather than rigorous fact-checking. But journalistic practices, now cited with nostalgia, were never free of bias and agendas; selective use of data supports a viewpoint.
News and truth are fundamentally different concepts, and it’s time we accepted that as fact. Mankind invents rules to live and think by. News is one of these rules, being a central element in framing information. It signals an event or presents information or knowledge in a specific way to create a desired picture of reality to influence how citizens think and act.
News is what is reported, and what is reported is news. The most important news is, and always has been, the selection of information and how it is presented.
Control of news has always been crucial in establishing issues and manufacturing consensus about political actions or policies. In George Orwell’s novel “1984,” Newspeak, with its constantly changing vocabulary designed to suppress undesirable concepts and limit freedom of expression, is a mechanism for controlling the population. Command of the news and means of communication defines power more precisely than the monopoly of capital and the means of production.
The current debate about who controls the news and information, and who gets to shape agendas, is a timeless one.