In today’s media landscape we’re presented with numbers, graphs, charts and statistics on a daily basis from numerous sources across the political spectrum to explain phenomena on the world’s stage. Buzzwords like ‘fake news,’ ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth’ tend to be thrown around with relative abandon to describe the often-rocky precipice between ‘truth and ‘falsehood’ which if the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche can be used as our guide is far more embroiled and symbiotic than one thinks. Today more than ever, due to the ever-growing capabilities of social media and the news outlets featured on these sites, one can pick and choose exactly what they are consuming ideologically and live uninterrupted within such an environment. There is a long, rich tradition within both sociology and philosophy of positivism and empiricism, with academic figures like Emile Durkheim and David Hume promoted a rigorous and scientific outlook towards explaining phenomena. Today’s internet Neo-Conservative poster-boys such as Ben Shapiro have effectively appropriated empirical terminology and claim to adhere strictly to it, as can be seen in the often-quoted Shapiro mantra; ‘facts don’t care about your feelings.’ It is incredibly important that the modern media-consumer breaks down and uncovers the manner in which people consume ‘objective facts,’ examine the means by which media outlets present information, and understand the complex ways that facts can be interpreted and often involve one’s own feelings and prejudices, rather than merely accepting data at face value.
On browsing social media or a news website, the most noticeable and eye-catching feature is obviously the article headline. According to the Washington Post, 60% of American readers stop after reading purely the headline, showing just how important these words are to an investigation of this kind. As an aside, taking this statistic without question can also be inadvertently interpreted in multiple ways, as you may think from hearing this that Americans have shorter attention spans in reading the news, but far more complex factors may be at work. Adam Waytz of the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management claims that two psychological frameworks are at play when reading an article headline; ‘motivated reasoning’ which proposes that we become motivated by information that confirms our deeply held opinions and ‘naïve realism’ whereby we raise our particular perspective on phenomena as the only truly accurate view in contrast to the misinformed, irrational or biased opinions of others. Within a culture of click-bait, headlines are continually designed to be as eye-catching as possible and are developed in order to appeal to particular readerships, get ahead of their competitors and exert values and standpoints held by the outlet and its audience, in subtler and subtler ways. For example, in a 2012 article about the U.S job market, this is what some of America’s top media outlets had to say;
NPR – ‘163,000 Jobs Added In July; Unemployment Rate Rose To 8.3 Percent.’
Fox News – ‘Wrong-Way Growth: Jobless Jumps In July as New Hiring Remains Slow.’
NBC News – ‘US economy’s job engine revved up in July.’
These headlines when read in conjunction exhibit a spread akin to a political axis, each promoting and sparking interest in different parts of the actual story depending upon their respective audiences. This can also be seen in headlines regarding for example the death of Botham Shem Jean in 2018 at the hands of an off-duty police officer Amber Guyger, of which Fox News chose to focus upon the implication that the officer entered the man’s home by mistake, while CNN introduced the dimension of a racially motivated shooting. This difference thereby indicates the direction by which a reader usually interprets such articles within the structure of its wording and presentation.
Media can present information as singular objective facts but frame it within its own particular ideology, for example, when speaking with Fox News in relation to the murder of 50 Muslim people at prayer in Christchurch New Zealand, conservative political consultant Kellyanne Conway continually reiterated that the attacker had sympathy and praise for the ‘ideology of China’ before dealing with his other motivations thereby appealing to the right-wing and Anti-Left audience of Fox News. While this statement is true as the attacker did write this within a manifesto of sorts, the fact is framed by Conway to adhere to a particular perspective. This framing can also happen when an article poses statistical and numerical information. Data can be described within the sociological tradition as either quantitative; which focuses on measurement, numerical comparison and statistical analysis within a fixed and measurable reality, or qualitative; which aims to understand human behaviour through individual perspectives and interpretations, observation, interviews, language and meaning within a dynamic and constantly shifting world. This is important to consider when approaching statistics such as the fact that nearly half of all murders in the U.S are committed by black people, while they comprise only 13% of the total population. Or the fact that there is a correlation between race, education, income and voting patterns. However, these are purely positivistic approaches towards quantitative data and claims, they don’t comment at all upon the qualitative, subjective, individualistic and non-empirical factors underlying these issues, such as access, poverty or injustice and are often taken at face value or used to justify other more extreme positions of racism, sexism, xenophobia and complexes of superiority.
It’s time to move away from this type of empirical reductionism and their adherence to ‘pure logic and facts’ and to delve into the multiplicity and complexity of modern social issues and interpretation. Correlation is integrally not causation and cannot be seen as such if an issue is to be investigated sufficiently. The most important thing to remember when analysing news and media is that facts are not an end in themselves, they do not close a debate, they are surface level questions that simply deepen the issue and always have the power to be interpreted or presented in a huge manner of ways.
By Aaron Collier – Features Writer