Fake News Isn’t the Problem, TV News Is

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Fake News Isn’t the Problem, TV News Is

Researchers at the Computational Social Science Lab at the University of Pennsylvania launched a fascinating new dashboard documenting American news consumption habits using Nielsen data, and the results push back against one of the main narratives we were sold during the Trump administration.

Fake news is a Trumpism-turned media panic, as throughout the Trump years, major outlets were quasi-obsessed with the notion that Americans were consuming untrue news sources en masse. This study indicates that the fake news saga was far closer to a moral panic than journalism, as just 0.15 percent of Americans consume fake news every day.

The echo chambers created by social media are commonly blamed for our increasing isolation into our ideological camps, but Penn found that just four percent of Americans “actually fall into such echo chambers online. The number for television, however, is much higher, with 17% of people in the United States consuming TV news from partisan left- or right-leaning sources alone, news diets they tend to maintain month over month.”

Looking further into the data, it’s clear that the constant is right-wing partisan news consumption, while left-wing echo chambers on TV and the web reached the right-wing level during the Trump years, before dropping off after the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Other research indicates that older people have a more difficult time than younger people at discerning fact from opinion, but the real correlation is exposure to TV news, which is consumed by older people at a much higher rate. This is undoubtedly tied to the partisan echo chambers on MSNBC and Fox News, but CNN also has a hand in spreading misinformation, as an example lower down in this column will demonstrate. Terry McDermott’s 2010 Columbia Journalism Review cover story describes the unchanged fundamental issue at the base of all cable news in this paragraph:

Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined. American Idol, in contrast, routinely draws 30 million. Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.

A study from 2017 found that cable news seems to sacrifice some levels of viewership in order to maximize their influence at the ballot box, and one clinical trial from 1997 indicates negative TV news can exacerbate concerns over your personal life. Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Duncan Watts, who ran this study, said “If you’re worried about why people believe what they believe, you really need to look at what they’re watching on television.”

In a must-read article by Zaira Gorvett in the BBC from 2020, she details incredible study after study which all indicate that there is a strong positive correlation between declining mental health and increased news consumption. This passage about people who consumed news of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing being more traumatized than people connected to it is going to stick in my brain forever.

Another group had been even more badly shaken: those who had not seen the explosion in person, but had consumed six or more hours of news coverage per day in the week afterwards. Bizarrely, knowing someone who had been injured or died, or having been in the vicinity as the bombs went off, were not as predictive of high acute stress.

“It was a big ‘aha’ moment for us,” says [Alison] Holman [of the University of California, Irvine]. “I think people really strongly, deeply underestimate the impact the news can have.”

This story focuses on the broader news environment, but Penn’s research clearly demonstrates that TV “news viewing far outpaces news consumption online.”

Because of their centrality to what elite America deems to be true, we take the immense influence of TV news for granted. Russian shitposting on Facebook and Twitter was widely blamed for Donald Trump’s election in 2016, and not the $2 billion in free media given to him by cable news.

The problem at its core is the medium itself. You can produce whatever content you want but it won’t change the fundamental fact that television is an entertainment vehicle designed to carry you from commercial break to commercial break. When it’s a scripted drama or a game whose commercials may murder you, personally, the whole production makes more sense because the stakes are far lower. When a news anchor has to stop doing journalism so they can throw it to a corporate sponsor they’re financially incentivized to not critique, that tends to give away the whole game.

Also giving away the game? The game itself. Returning to the CJR piece about how cable news is an elite echo chamber, this recent CNN clip with Jake Tapper and Barak Ravid is instructive in how fake news gets laundered through TV news and accepted as fact by those in power. Tapper introduces the audience to Ravid and his new Axios report by spreading misinformation that supports the depraved establishment line on the Israeli siege of Gaza. Here’s the opening to the segment:

Tapper: “Hamas has responded to the latest proposal for a hostage and ceasefire deal and Hamas has rejected it. CNN political and foreign policy analyst Barak Ravid is breaking this. Barak, did Hamas give any explanation for its rejection?”

Ravid: “So first of all Hamas did not say that they rejected the deal. Hamas said that it gave a response to the Qatari and Egyptian mediators, that they gave several comments and remarks on parts of the Israeli proposal. Israel—Israeli government and Israeli officials—are the ones saying that after they received Hamas’s response and analyzed it, they treated it as a rejection.”

It’s no wonder that people who consume copious amounts of cable news have a harder time discerning fact from opinion when high-profile anchors like Tapper continually put narratives ahead of journalism. The entire cable news apparatus is designed to serve a shrinking audience of influential and more well-off news consumers, not to inform the broader public. It’s infotainment, and if forced to choose, the Trump era proved that these networks will lean into entertainment over information every time. It’s their fundamental nature, and it’s bad for all of us.

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