During a year marked by social and political turmoil, the media has found itself under scrutiny from politicians, academics, the general public, and increasingly self-reflexive journalists and editors. Fake news has entered our lexicon both as a form of political meddling from foreign powers and a dismissive insult directed towards any less-than-complimentary news coverage of the current administration.
Paying attention to where people are getting their news and what that news is telling them is an important step to understanding our increasingly polarized society and our seeming inability to talk across political divides. The insight can also help us get at those important and oh-too common questions of “how could they think that?!?” or “how could they support that politician?!?”
My interest in this topic was sparked a few months ago when I began paying attention to the top four stories and single video that magically appear whenever I swipe left on my iPhone. The stories compiled by the Apple News App provide a snapshot of what the dominant media sources consider the newsworthy happenings of the day. After paying an almost obsessive attention to my newsfeed for a few weeks—and increasingly annoying my friends and colleagues by telling them about the compelling patterns I was seeing—I started to take screenshots of the suggested news stories on a daily or twice daily basis. The images below were gathered over the past two months.
It is worth noting that the Apple News App adapts to a user’s interests to ensure that it provides “the stories you really care about.” To minimize this complicating factor I avoided clicking on any of the suggested stories and would occasionally verify that my news feed had remained neutral through comparing the stories with other iPhone users whenever possible.
Some of the differences were to be expected—People simply cannot get enough of celebrity pregnancies and royal weddings. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and CNN frequently feature stories that are critical of the current administration, and Fox News is generally supportive of President Trump and antagonistic towards enemies of the Republican Party.
However, there are two trends that I would like to highlight:
1) A significant number of Fox News headlines offer direct critiques of other media sites and their coverage of key news stories. Rather than offering an alternative reading of an event or counter-coverage, the feature story undercuts the journalistic work of other news sources through highlighting errors and making accusations of partisanship motivations. In some cases, this even takes the form of attacking left-leaning celebrities as proxy to a larger movement or idea. Neither of these tactics were employed by any of the other news sources during my observation period.
2) Fox News often featured coverage of vile, treacherous, or criminal acts committed by individuals as well as horrifying accidents. This type of story stood out both due to the high frequency and the juxtaposition to coverage of important political events of the time—murderous pigs next to Senate resignations and sexually predatory high school teachers next to massively destructive California wildfires. In a sense, Fox News is effectively cultivating an “asociological” imagination by shifting attention to the individual rather than larger political processes and structural changes. In addition, the repetitious coverage of the evil and devious certainly contributes to a fear-based society and confirms the general loss of morality and decline of conservative values.
It is worth noting that this move away from the big stories of the day also occurs through a surprising amount of celebrity coverage.
From the screen captures I have gathered over the past two months, it seems apparent that we are not just consuming different interpretations of the same event, but rather we are hearing different stories altogether. This effectively makes the conversation across political affiliation (or more importantly, news source affiliation) that much more difficult if not impossible.
I recommend taking time to look through the images that I have provided on your own. There are a number of patterns I did not discuss in this piece for the sake of brevity and even more to be discovered. And, for those of us who spend our time in the front of the classroom, the screenshot approach could provide the basis for a great teaching activity where the class collectively takes part in both the gathering of data and conducting the analysis.