Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Ray of Hope

There are many reasons why Donald Trump will be are next president, and this result makes me fear what will happen to our country. I would like to say that the Democrats, or even the Republicans, have learned a valuable lesson from this election, but I see no sign of this yet. But certainly, this election was a shock to the system. Professional pollsters learned that this country is a much darker place than they thought, and their precious science was wrong. They will be scrambling to understand how to fix their models, and that will have an impact on how we conduct our elections in the future. But that is not what gives me hope going forward. The first signs I see that something positive can come from this are the reactions in the media.

The media coverage of the campaign can certainly be blamed for the election of Donald Trump. Both the false equivalences promoted by the mainstream media and the proliferation of fake news on social media were gifts to the Trump campaign. Together, they enabled what has been called the “post-factual” environment where Trump was somehow more trustworthy than Hillary Clinton. But it seems to me that people in the media are genuinely horrified at what they have done, and the reactions of the public are contributing to positive change in ways that I don’t see elsewhere in our society yet.

Consider this recent article on Vox by German Lopez. Lopez takes the New York Times to task for false equivalency for a paragraph that came deep in an article about the atmosphere on college campuses in the wake of the election. The actual paragraph read:

According to a campuswide message from Mark Schlissel, the university’s president, bias incidents have been reported. A student walking near campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr. Trump.

Lopez was actually being dishonest in his reporting. He misquoted the paragraph this way:

Bias incidents on both sides have been reported. A student walking near campus was threatened with being lit on fire because she wore a hijab. Other students were accused of being racist for supporting Mr. Trump, according to a campuswide message from Mark Schlissel, the university’s president.

So the New York Times is simply reporting that Mark Sclissel included both a concrete threat to a student and accusations of racism in his report as bias incidents, but Lopez rearranges the paragraph to make it seem that the New York Times is drawing no distinction between the severity of these two acts. Lopez also makes it seem that this was the focus of the New York Times article, when in fact it was buried deep in what I found to be a fair piece of reporting. Lopez’ article also had a fine example of a click-bait headline: The New York Times’ False Equivalency Problem, In One Paragraph. So the Vox article was not a bad example of the problem of misleading reporting, but I still see hope in this incident. I could wish that Lopez would have found a better example to make his case, but I am glad he tried, because false equivalency was a big problem at the New York Times and elsewhere leading up to the election. On the other hand, I have seen a change in the tone of the Times’ reporting since the election, which may be why Lopez had to report this the way he did. They have been critical of Trump in recent articles, and they no longer seem to be bending over backwards to criticize his opposition at the same time. The New York Times also received a lot of criticism for the article Lopez flagged, to the point where they felt the need to issue a public response in defense of the article. So they know that people are paying attention, and that is a positive sign in its own right.

Meanwhile, I have seen a steady stream on Facebook of articles from various sources about how to spot fake news. Most have had generous lists of links to fact checkers and sources for responsible reporting. There have been arguments on the left about some of the liberal sites that have been named as sources of irresponsible reporting, and I have even seen cases where some sites were removed from lists of offending sites after someone raced to defend them. This is all to the good. (Full disclosure: Vox is an opinion site that I rely on for some of the writers who work there, my comments above notwithstanding.) Facebook and other social media sites have been seeing pressure to ban fake news, which is difficult to completely eradicate. But we can hope that this combination of pressure and education will limit the damage fake news can do in future elections.

Of course, money speaks louder than the loudest complaint or the most gentle persuasion. But there are positive signs here as well. Major consumer companies have been using bots that place their ads all over the web, but I saw a report that, since the election, some companies are asking to have their ads removed from sites like Breitbart that air fake news and promote racism. The public can get involved here by pressuring advertisers, even to the point of threatening boycotts. It doesn’t matter how many clicks a Breitbart gets if they don’t have advertisers to pay the bills, so it may really be possible to, as it were, drain the swamp. Money can also be put to positive use, and there are hopeful signs here as well. Non-profit fact checkers and investigative journalism organizations have been reporting an upsurge in donations since the election.

All told, I see since the election some soul searching on the part of the media. There seems to be a genuine concern that they enabled the election of Trump, and a real effort to find ways to do better in the future. The public is engaged, both as a watchdog and as a source of targeted funding. The only question is how long this will continue. I hope this election marks a final repudiation of “fair and balanced reporting”, aka false equivalency. While I think it is probably optimistic at best to think we can take down a Breitbart or a Fox News, we can challenge their business model with our spending decisions. On the left, we can and should demand responsible behavior from our media sources. And most of all, we can learn how to make better use of the information sources we have, so that we don’t get fooled again. We can not avoid four years of Trump/Pence, but we can work towards a media environment that will prevent a repeat of this election. It is starting to happen, and I hope it will continue.

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