Did you know that BuzzFeed does quite good investigative journalism? Yes, that BuzzFeed, the one with listicles and click-bait quizzes. If not, here’s a BuzzFeed, the shit site everybody should block, listicle of genuinely good journalism for maximum irony.
If BuzzFeed can do proper journalism, why can’t Fox News/CNN? According to associate professor of psychology, Jay van Bavel, on this podcast episode, they can and do. The problem is not so much with the news source, but that people cannot tell the difference between journalism and opinion.
That got me thinking… I certainly don’t think of Fox News as a reputable news source, and I see many sharing that opinion in my little filter bubble. I’m certain many will say the same about CNN.
But on the other hand, when I see people showing examples of how Fox News is bad, it is often from that eminently punchable Tucker Carlson or, going back a couple of news, from The O’Reiley Factor. But neither of those shows are news shows, they are opinion shows. Maybe Fox News is not serving bad news, but bad opinions? Jay van Bavel seems to think so, and as this is a personal blog with opinions and not investigative journalism, I honestly cannot be bothered to investigate that in more details. I’m willing to buy in to that assumption, though.
The line between news and opinion is pretty strict in old media like news papers, where opinion is clearly marked, especially third party opinions. In TV the line is much more blurred, and people unironically refer to shows like John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and Jon Stewart’s Colbert Report as presenting news with less bullshit than real news reports. While these shows have some underlining of real news, sometimes even proper investigative journalism, they also employ entertainment and lots of opinion. They are not even really candid about this, but at times the lines between the parts is so diffuse as to be non-existing.
There’s nothing per se wrong with making news more entertaining (though I would argue that news alone serves no purpose other than entertainment, but that is another blog post for another day), but it is problematic that people see opinion in their media of choice and view it as fact, and equally problematic – perhaps even more – that people see opinion from dissenting news media and view that as other people’s view of facts.
I don’t think anybody, even after I informed you that BuzzFeed does real investigative journalism, will take the result of a “which Disney princess are you?” test as fact (I’m apparently Mulan). It should be equally ridiculous to take John Oliver or Tucker Carlson as purveyors of facts.
I think opinion can be a great starting point for a discussion. It is perfectly fair to start a discussion with I saw John Oliver talk about, I dunno, I can’t stand the guy and haven’t watched him in years, but probably smoking or oil. Or referring to Tucker Carlson’s treatment of (same and never), but probably muslims or heathens. The discussion should not be based on the opinion piece, but rather the underlying, hopefully linked facts. My blog contains both opinion and facts. I like to think it is obvious which category a post belongs to, but have also taken to color code posts; if the background is purple it is part of my tutorials and should be viewed as fact, whereas baby blue background means “everything else,” typically opinion or one-off factual articles. I should probably change that so fact is always clearly marked. But I try to always provide sources to read more about things I mention; I’ll often use Wikipedia out of laziness and for accessibility, though in some of my dryer parts, I’ll link to scientific articles.
It is hard to sell facts in a world dominated by filter bubbles and click bait. Opinions sell because you can interject emotion, and people are much more likely to gotcha/hate share an opinion piece saying guns are great/terrible than a piece of (correct) statistics showing what they are. I’m a big proponent of making debates more nuanced by getting away from a them/us narrative and instead viewing things more quantitatively, but even so I put slightly click-baity headlines on my posts anyway.
My dream scenario would be that all “news” shared would get a mandatory indicator of either opinion or fact. In the case opinion, it would include information about exactly whose opinion it is, and in the case of facts a link to sources corroborating the fact.
If that is not possible (and at least it is not the world we live in now), at least try to be aware of whether something is an opinion piece or actual journalism, both when sharing and when seeing other people sharing media. Don’t resort to using opinion pieces in argumentation, and call out people who do. And most importantly, don’t view opinion pieces from others as proof that anybody but the author of the opinion piece has that opinion – others may, but immediately thinking the worst of others is not likely to make anybody happier or less partisan.
But that’s just my opinion…
Time person of the year 2006, Nobel Peace Prize winner 2012.