Facts do exist. They can be denied, contested, and disputed, but they do exist. What’s playing out in the newsphere now is a battle for dominance of one set of facts over another: it’s a fact that facts exist!!! The denial of facts has been used politically to advance political agendas in the US, UK, and many other countries to help construct a preferred reality.
In the U.S., President Trump successfully uses ‘fake news,’ and ‘alternative facts,’ to design a parallel universe where he’s not ‘lying’ but instead is actually communicating what he wants to be true. Rigorous fact-checking and claims by prominent news outlets, such as The New York Times, that “Truth Is More Important Than Ever” are not working.
That’s because news outlets are not playing by the same rules. Left-leaning organizations and reporters and those on the right have different goals, objectives, strategies, and most of all, values and standards. Far-right outlets, such as Breitbart News, are highly partisan, according to a recent report by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for for Internet and Society.
For example, “fact-checking sites, media watchdog groups, and cross-media criticism—appear to have wielded little influence on the insular conservative media sphere.” Second, “The institutional commitment to impartiality of media sources at the core of attention on the left meant that hyperpartisan, unreliable sources on the left did not receive the same amplification that equivalent sites on the right did,” says the Harvard Report. That’s how and why right-leaning organizations, such as Breitbart and Fox News, were able to greatly influence the stories that the more mainstream, center-left organizations covered.
While the left and right media planets, each spinning on their own axis, are contributing to confusion, fear, and perpetuating ignorance in the newsphere, it is comforting to know that important forces are counter-balancing these trends. First, an impressive and over-due news literacy movement is gaining momentum. Denver-based Vanessa, a patent attorney, created this elaborate media bias chart and its companion “All Generalizations Are False” Web site to help U.S. news readers evaluate the sources of their stories.
She’s “making a good faith effort to substantiate something popular (a picture of the media landscape) with something that is right and good (extensive research, data, and analysis that backs up the rankings),” according to her Web site. Her work is credible, commendable, and popular, but over-focusing on bias ignores two important pieces–context and reception.
Knowledge is power, and an attempt to acquire, maintain or increase it, involves both “a struggle to construct a (sense of) reality and to circulate that reality as widely and smoothly as possible throughout society,” writes the John Fiske, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. An important part of this struggle is convincing others with very different needs and wants, to accept a certain construction of reality. So instead of focusing attention on bias, accuracy, or objectivity, Fiske recommends news producers encourage open-ended meaning making.“When the events of the news become woven into the fabric of everyday life, they are made to matter,” says Fiske.
This January 2018 piece by Charles Eisenstein is just this type of story. “Opposition to GMOs Is Neither Unscientific Nor Immoral” invites readers to contemplate and weigh different points of view in a calm, clear voice. It is my unconfirmed understanding that Eisenstein wrote this story because an organic farming family member was outranged by Purdue University President Mitchell Daniels’s December 27, 2017 opinion piece in the Washington Post titled “Avoiding GMO’s isn’t just anti-science. It’s immoral.”
Instead of fighting back with an equally impassioned, fact-based counter-argument, Eisenstein realized “The pro-and anti-GMO positions will remain irreconcilably polarized as long as these larger questions remain unexamined.” And that’s precisely what he does here: he contextualizes and examines larger issues, such as disengagement with the soil, rural depopulation, and re-localized food production. In moving beyond the black and white of judgement into the potentiality of ‘gray,’ Eistenstein encourages the open-ended meaning-making that is vital to a vibrant newsphere now.