Often, the negative news reported about large demonstrations/protests is grossly exaggerated (and sometimes outright false) and may give the illusion of an event that was a lot less civil than it actually was. Why is that? It’s because peaceful demonstrations are not entertaining – in other words, they’re not going to garner as many views, likes, shares, etc. on social media; and it is not only the sources that deliberately publish misleading reports but repetitive reporting of selective news by mainstream media that taint our views as well.
Selective and over-reporting of negative, although not false, news can affect the way we perceive a situation and, sometimes, an entire group of people.
To illustrate, imagine a nationwide march of more than a million people that spans over many cities throughout the country. Then imagine there are a few (we’ll say four or five) isolated instances of rioting/violence that results in a total of 100 arrests. Considering this movement involves more than a million participants, that means the number of those arrested was less than .01 percent. Therefore, one could reasonably argue that the vast majority of the group was peaceful.
However, because coverage of the riots would be more entertaining and evoke a greater emotional response, news outlets are likely to focus on the riots and arrests, giving minimal coverage to the peaceful demonstrators, if they give them any coverage at all.
By selectively reporting on the small percentage (in relation to the total number of demonstrators throughout the country) of those who are rioting and inciting violence and showing the same incident(s) repeatedly, the media portray a false narrative.
Without a conscious awareness of this, we can easily come to think of what we see as an accurate representation of the majority, not realizing it is actually the minority because to think it is the majority serves our purpose. We feel a sense of superiority and thumb our noses at the other side when we see those on that side acting out in ways that are less than civil. We post and share things that condemn and demonize an entire group based on the actions of a few and develop a distorted sense of reality.
This distorted sense of reality, along with the proliferation of questionable news sources has played a role in the extreme polarization of the political parties and has created a divide in this country. Because there is virtually no media regulation, misinformation and false information spread like wildfire. We become biased. Then, we insulate ourselves in a bubble with people and “news” outlets that confirm our bias. We unfollow or unfriend those on social media who don’t share our views. We cherry-pick the news we want to see, and, sadly, most of what feeds our biases comes from unreliable sources such as click-bait and propaganda sites. The headlines are sensational, and we share them, often without doing any research on our own to verify the validity – because the truth is often not nearly as exciting.
Case in point – shortly after the election, USA Today reported on an Austin resident named Eric Tucker who unintentionally but falsely tweeted that busloads of professional protesters were being staged in Austin. That tweet was shared more than 16,000 times in two days. When his allegations were questioned and investigated, it was found that the buses were being used to shuttle people participating in a data-sharing conference that was taking place nearby. Tucker tweeted a correction, saying he did value the truth and that the buses were actually for a conference. Unfortunately, the correction was only re-tweeted eight times. Tucker then composed a blog about the experience in which he wrote: “The systems that carry information to us all are filtered by what’s sensational — not by what’s true … People are surprisingly uninterested in truth but very interested in what helps them to make their own case.”
Let’s resist the temptation to post sensational, biased, news stories that generalize an entire population and serve no purpose other than to spread false information that only widens the divide in this country. Let’s become better fact-checkers and be wary of sources that are highly biased.
By Stephanie Pena
Stephanie Pena graduated from the University of Houston in 2015 with a double-major in Communications and Psychology. Major coursework included: Communication Law and Ethics, Public Relations, Writing for Print and Digital Media, Social Impact of New Information Technology, Psychology and Law, Psychological Statistics, and Social Psychology. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Marketing Communications at West Virginia University.
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