aNewDomain — The other night I took the unusual step of watching the evening news.
I didn’t mean to, it was an accident. I had something on that was not appropriate for children, some action movie or something. When the family got home, I switched it over to the news. Just in time for the opening.
Have you noticed how many adjectives are in the news today?
Here’s the thing with adjectives: They’re nearly always a matter of opinion.
We learned this week that Phobos, Mars’ biggest moon, has stretch marks. Stress fractures, caused by tidal forces from Mars’ gravity. But if you just read the headlines on news sites, you’d think the thing was about to blow up and kill us all.
The thing is, Phobos has 30 to 50 million years left in it. It will disintegrate or deorbit or both, but we will be long gone by then. But the clickbait hed makes us goners. Just like that.
And look at this:
We had us a shooting incident in my town.
The first person to see the shooter saw him just leaving home with an AR15 in his hand. She called the police and the dispatcher advised her that this is an open carry state so his actions were legal … but she kept the caller on the line and dispatched officers anyway, because the man’s behavior was suspicious.
Headlines claimed the dispatcher delivered a “lecture” on open carry rather than dispatch officers. Please.
The problem is epidemic. I mean, look at the headlines on NBC.com at the time of this writing. First off, there’s this one: Supreme Court Wades Back Into Abortion Fight
Wades back in? That’s a might suggestive, isn’t it? Is that the best way to describe the SCOTUS considering an argument, or is that the best way to encourage people to want to listen to the story?
Trouble is, a phrase like that only sets up the scene as something it isn’t: a fight to be waded into. Doesn’t that conjure up particular images of, for example, a barroom brawl, rather than careful deliberation, soul-searching, and search for constitutional precedent?
Then there’s this one: College Football’s Most Underrated Quarterbacks
What about the underratedness of quarterbacks? It’s a matter of opinion, really. As John Oliver says, isn’t the headline here that some people are wrong about something?And why the hell is the nightly news covering college football, anyway. Are global warming and homelessness getting old?
Here’s another one from NBC Nightly News’ headlines. It begins: After Slain Cop’s Daughter Dies, Devoted …
And the next one down from that is: Voice Coaches Hilariously Dance Around Questions of …
Slain cops? Devoted colleagues? Again, all rather suggestive, wouldn’t you say? In psychology and in science writing, we have to be very, very careful about ascribing motives to people. We can only really say what they did and how we know they did it.
As for “devoted,” that is yet another matter of opinion. Aren’t there many reasons that officers might take any given action at all? Devotion isn’t the first or best of them.
And hilarious is the most judgmental word of all. Because humor is always so subjective. And by saying it’s hilarious, aren’t they prompting you, like you might otherwise think it isn’t?
When did the news get this way, a series of clickbait headlines?
It hasn’t always been like this, it’s true. Newspaper headlines through the ages have always needed to grab your attention, sure. They make the news seem a sensation by design, to make you buy the paper from the boy shouting “Extra! Extra!” on the neighborhood streetcorner, back when he and neighborhood streetcorners still existed. That’s when hero cops, evil Nazis, death and mayhem and destruction became newsy buzzwords. Sgt. Joe Friday was never a reporter.
But all headlines weren’t all mayhem. That part’s new.
The trouble is, our opinions have gotten so mixed up with the news that we don’t even notice any more. The heavy drumbeat and dramatic music under the nightly headlines, the promise to deliver more drama, more adjectives later, the cliffhanger dangling you in front of one brave woman’s fight to rescue her child from wolves. But first …
We kind of expect it from Fox and MSNBC. Really, it should be Fox Opinion. MSNBC broadcasters are at least honest enough not to have “news” in their name.
But CBS and NBC and ABC? The Big Three? Their news is supposed to be a public good, a way for the stations to repay us for the bandwidth, the frequencies we allow them out of the common pool.
But the news isn’t sexy, doesn’t make any money.
Even PBS is fraught with opinion. It tends to be scholarly opinion but the fact that I tend to agree with them doesn’t make them objective.
PBS is still probably the best place to get factual content minus the sensationalism, and at least a warning before they switch to opinions and editorials. Depth coverage and appropriate balance are the orders of the day, and PBS is less likely than other organizations to fall for think tank guests who are actually corporate lobbyists.
But in my opinion, the best news being done today is maybe John Oliver. HBO’s deal with the pundit does not require him to make any money. He can spend what he wants, how he wants, with no expectation of doing anything but news. In 30 minutes a week, he is able to take a deep dive into any given subject of interest. And he does.
His exposés take on American life and politics in a way no other national news organization can: with profanity. His shows are amusing, true and cutting.
There’s still too much opinion, though.
If you really want to know what’s going on out there, who can you trust? You can’t trust your Fakesbook feed – it caters to your interests and biases. You can’t trust the TV news, who exist to sell advertising. They’re fixing to get fat on another campaign season right now. Even the foreign news services are pretty questionable.
So how can you find out what’s going on?
Don’t ask me. I’m only a journalist. A journalist whose regular gig is to write an opinion column.
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.
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