greater media literacy

For many of us, being at our parents’ house for a visit means exposure to things outside of our daily routine.

For me, it meant watching the nightly television news — something I rarely do, which makes me a statistical minority in the United States.

Every night, like clockwork, the news was on at 11 o’clock, bringing a melange of information right into the living room. Weather, sports, and traffic advisories peppered with seasonally-focused segments, broken up into easy-to-digest pieces that were teased to the point of saturation. This is not how I or my generation get the news. But it is how many — in fact, most — Americans get it.

During that time, I saw the following pieces:

  • A health report on the trend of “wine moms” and how “mommyjuice culture” can “turn dangerous.”
  •  Numerous pieces about shopping and how to get the best deals from retailers.
  •  An interview with an immigrant family who were celebrating “bittersweet” time with family, due to the looming potential of deportation under President Trump.
  • A short piece about concussions in youth football players, followed closely by an in-depth injury report from the local professional football team.
  •   Extensive coverage of a 92-year-old woman who was mugged by a couple.

There was little news about matters which directly impacted the daily lives of viewers , nothing about the state legislature or city or county policies, and little about Congressional decisions. Those stories were covered on the station’s website, though they trailed behind weather and seasonal stories in popularity.

The underlying tone the pieces was consistent: The world is not what you think it is, and it’s not what how you remember it from when things were good (whenever that was).

Crime is getting worse. Modern trends are necessarily worse than older ones. And at the end of the day, the best way to solve your problems is not to vote, write your lawmakers, or get involved, but instead, to buy something.

The absence of policy discussion also carried a clear message: “Politics” isn’t as relevant as a carjacking or murder that occurs three states over. “Politics” does not impact your commute, your sports viewing, or your weekend plans. “Politics” happens in Washington, D.C., and nowhere else.

Our dinner table conversations over the weekend, in many ways, reflected the worldview presented by the news. While talking about events of the world, sentiments ranging from “everything is a scam” to “the world seems like a more dangerous place” were not only common, they elicited nods of agreement.

It’s not difficult to draw the connection between local news and its viewers’ opinions, both in my own anecdotal home experience and in the broader state of of our national dialogue.

Though there is copious, reasonable concern about “fake news” and ultra-partisan misinformation shared on social media, television news remains the primary source for millions of Americans.

Not only do people watch their local TV news, they trust it and find it relatively centrist or objective — local news is, to many Americans, the opposite of fake news.

TV news programs are, statistically, viewed as a highly believable, trustworthy source of news. Viewers who tend to shun sites like Breitbart or US Uncut still largely find their local affiliate to be a source they can trust.

But here’s the thing: It’s not. In addition to the standard human interest pieces (like the “wine mom” segment), which often seek to cash in on popular ideas, local TV news tends to rely on stock subjects like the weather, traffic, local sports, and of course, crime.

And it’s in crime reporting that many of local news’ problems lie, particularly with regard to how the worldview of the average viewer is shaped.

Journalism students in Louisville who tracked local news coverage found that “over half (52 percent)” of one station’s 6 p.m. news segments were about crime. And while this has almost certainly added to the perception that crime is increasing in general, the way that crime is covered makes the picture painted by local news even more harmful and inaccurate.

For example, there’s a documented pattern of biased representation of marginalized communities in local TV news. Beginning in the late 1990s, a sizable body of research was developed, demonstrating that people who watch local TV news are likely to see Black or Brown people committing crimes in disproportionate numbers, creating a culture of fear and suspicion among white people.

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This extends into TV news, too. Former Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn’s “Terror Tracker,” which is run on local news stations across the country as well as hosted on their websites, presents “terrorism” as the sole purview of individuals from the Middle East. Similarly, TV news tend to cover terrorist attacks perpetrated by Middle Eastern individuals more heavily, leading to an outsized fear of Brown terrorists — and a willingness to act on it.

This means that viewers who flip on the news to see straightforward, unbiased reporting aren’t getting what they think they’re getting.

Instead of seeing a snapshot of breaking news and local and world events, they’re being served a dish that is disproportionately heaped with crime, fear, and racial bias. And they trust that it’s not only true, but that that’s all there is to know.

And then they absorb that misinformed fear, and they act on it.

Granted, many professionals who work for local TV news stations produce essential, thorough reporting. The issue, though, is with the industry itself. Television news stations owned by conglomerates exist for the sole purpose of generating revenue. There is money to be made in fear, salacious details, gore, feel-good news that confirms existing power structures, and othering. There is little money to be made in nuance, disruption, or discomfort.

Of course, none of this is new. Despite hand-wringing from older generations about the days of Murrow and “just-the-facts” journalism, this has always been the case.

In local TV news, the old adage remains as instructional as it ever was: If it bleeds, it leads. Triteness wins. Stereotypes win. Single-dimensional judgment wins.

But the misinformed influence of local news isn’t unavoidable — it just requires news consumers to change their behavior.

That might mean abstaining from sharing stories from local news stations that are owned by powerful conglomerates or ceasing to watch the nightly news.

It might mean taking steps to encourage advertisers to avoid buying time on those stations and supporting local journalism that isn’t attached to a larger corporation and doesn’t take part in questionable coverage — whether that’s a nonprofit model or a for-profit outfit that actively pursues more diverse, comprehensive coverage of issues.

It might mean talking to your family about where they go for their news and where else they might consider.

It also might mean larger, more systemic changes, like reforming campaign finance laws to cap spending on TV news ads and voting for lawmakers who support stronger consumer protections against monopolies at the federal level.

Fake news absolutely presents a threat to information and the education of the American voting body. But real news, willfully misapplied or wrongfully deployed, is just as much a danger.

As part of our collective hunt for greater media literacy, it’s important to look to the more innocent, more trusted outlets, as well, and ask what is (and is not) being fed directly into our homes and how it makes us see the world.

This story is excerpted from the original essay on Medium, and is reprinted here with permission.

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