Humans are social creatures who need a sense of community, and we create that environment both physically and virtually at every opportunity. Look at the neighborhoods of major cities in the US and other developed countries. You’ll find Chinatown, Little Italy, and a host of other culturally specific groups that choose to create geographic areas that feel more comfortable for the residents within. It is almost an innate need to remove perceived risk factors or stressors from our lives. Even today, over fifty years after the civil rights movement, ask a black person how comfortable they are in a primarily white neighborhood, or vice versa. While it does happen, it is more the exception than the rule, and the people breaking those barriers are often not representative of their broader subculture.
However, these safety nets we create for ourselves are not always beneficial and in many cases can expose us to risks we are almost incapable of seeing because of what these nets are comprised of… which is primarily comfort. When one becomes too comfortable, one tends to slip into complacency. We see this happen in hunting accidents, animal trainers who are mauled, and even careless driving accidents. When we get comfortable and stop scrutinizing situations, bad things can happen. Extend that analogy to information from news, media, politicians or other outlets, and I would contend the risk is exponential given the broad reach coupled with the appetite for seeking familiarity.
Think of how quickly “Obama is a Muslim” spread across the Conservative base. Or how we react to an unarmed black man being shot by a cop, a school shooting, an act of terrorism, the list goes on. We have become a society that reacts without reflection, and we allow media outlets to pull the strings like we are marionettes. Ask yourself how often you read or watch outlets that provide the opposing argument to a given issue. And even if you do, is it because you want to hear how wrong they are, or because you want to genuinely understand the other side of the argument? If it is the latter, you are a rare breed.
Take any issue that one would consider polarizing; the best example I can think of is abortion. Those who support choice, saw the Planned Parenthood videos and focused on how edited they were. Those that oppose choice, saw atrocity. And the outlets we chose to watch for an editorial perspective likely fanned the flames of whatever it was you wanted to see. But here’s the problem. The media is not some altruistic entity that simply wants to provide an unbiased view of a given issue. They are for-profit entities that generate revenue on ratings, and those ratings determine the value of their advertising. So if you’re Fox News, you’re going to generate higher ratings by pandering to your base. Therefore there is no incentive to provide an objective view, and a huge incentive to fuel the emotions of viewers with provocative undertones.
I pick on Fox, because in my humble opinion, they have the most loyal viewership and their audience tends to drink whatever they are serving. If Fox News believed man made client change was important, something tells me that Conservatives would eventually be voting for environmental reform. Instead they feed the industry line about jobs, and how important it is for regulations to be removed so these “philanthropic” energy companies can create more jobs. Meanwhile, they fail to report that these same companies are taking in record profits while benefiting from significant tax exemptions. But a carbon tax… well… that’s just a non-starter. Think of those poor coal miners that would go out of work. The question we should all be asking is, who is challenging this paradigm?
If the news outlets generate their revenue from companies who buy advertising, and these are the same companies that are simultaneously funding campaigns of politicians, who exactly is monitoring the news outlets? Making matters worse, is that Conservative outlets leverage that problem in their own marketing to suggest they are more credible than the “Liberal media.” And their audience actually believes it. Try to conceive of how much power that provides large companies with. Need to shut down the carbon tax argument? Sign a lucrative advertising deal with Mr. Murdoch and he’ll make sure that everyone knows who the real enemy is… those tree hugging hippies who want to pass job killing regulations. We are figuratively asking the Fox (pun intended) to watch the henhouse, and are making it even easier by becoming social endorsers for the fox itself.
As a society, we need to become more skeptical. Not cynical, but skeptical. What is the underlying issue? Why is it a problem? What is the impact? How do we know? Would you trust Anheuser Busch if they told you their beer would make you smarter? Bring that same skepticism to anything you read or watch. I realize that the average lay person doesn’t think he / she could make an impact on the issues that make the news. One person can’t change the climate or our economy, right? Good thing no one told Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela that one person can’t make a difference. If that seems too bold, maybe we can just ask you to step out of your figurative Chinatown for the day. There’s a whole world out there, and you might just learn something.