Stop Fighting About The News!
Or why all news is inherently subjective
Imagine if tomorrow Denmark invaded Latvia, Malaysia invaded the Philippines, and Israel invaded Palestine - what would the front page of the New York Times look like? Which would get top billing? Which would get left off the front page entirely?
Let’s make it even more interesting. Say all those things happen tomorrow, but then add in that:
The U.S. men’s soccer team also wins the World Cup
A Republican Congressman is found to have leaked sensitive documents to the Russians
A Democratic Senator is caught embezzling $10 million meant for semiconductor subsidies
Each newspaper and media outlet would have to decide what to emphasize. Each front page would look different. And each reader would have a slightly different view of the world based on who they chose to read.
Is The News Facts?
At its most general, the news is just humans sitting at their desk, doing their job, spending their days making a living. It’s humans making things for humans. That’s why I find it a little funny how, especially since Covid, news organizations have reached sports-team levels of loyalty. Who you are is who you read, and you better be ready to fight about where you get your news from!
For most people I know, they lean on one, maybe two, publications. The usual defense of their preference comes down to some form of “objectivity”, as in “the New York Times has lost the plot; the Wall Street Journal I’ve found to be far more objective.”
This is where I start to chuckle. Because the issue is all news is subjective! A human’s judgment is involved in every part of the process. Whether it’s a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine like the Economist, each one creates its own universe.
I’m most likely the 12,000th person to state this point, so I thought it would be fun to share what I find to be the quite humorous - albeit essential - process of reporting the news.
Caveat: Who am I to explain the news, you may ask? Well in 2009 I interned on a CNBC talk show for a summer. That’s the sum total of my experience. Feel free to hold it against me.
The News, Start to Finish
A thing happens in the world
Be they large or small, millions of things happen each day.
Examples: the opening of Kazakhstan's largest mall, a mudslide in Oregon, the Guatemalan President’s daughter’s quinceañera, a tech IPO creating a new world’s richest person.
A news organization finds out that thing happens
Be it through Twitter, wire services that exist to break news around the world like the Associated Press, or through the news organizations’ own reporters.
The head of the news organization or head of one of its divisions decides to report on it
An organization’s mandate, its values, its understanding of its audience - some secret potion of leadership’s opinions combines to say “on this day, we have decreed that we will cover this story. We also have decreed that we will not cover that other story.”
Someone on the staff is assigned to investigate the story
That reporter then needs to reach out to both people they know and don’t know to get details on the thing they’ve been assigned to cover. Who, what, when, where, why.
Based on who the reporter is able to speak with and research, at some point they decide they have enough to write a story
If a reporter has a source they have become close with, and that source gives them details, then those details make it into the story.
One government agency has a set of numbers on Covid transmission based on a certain approach to data collection. A think tank has a different set of numbers based on their own approach. An internal research team has created their own proprietary methodology. The decision to make one of them the authority will most likely change publication by publication.
Corroboration, multiple sources etc probably vary depending on the standards of the organization.
The reporter writes the story and the editor edits it
Was a 52% to 48% election victory a “landslide”, a “drubbing”, a “historic win”, a “contested battle”, a “narrow defeat”, an “upset”, or merely a “52% to 48% election victory”?
The feelings of the writer, the values of the organization, and the overall style guide mean any number of outcomes are possible. Yet the words used will inform how the story is consumed and how the consumer will understand the event.
The final story is placed by the organization’s leadership on the website and newspaper
Front and center on Page 1, punctuated with a picture, is miles from a mere 500 words on Page 12. The number of people who consume the news beyond the first four headlines most likely decays exponentially.
What we read is what we believe, so the first four headlines shape our world.
A journalist gets a tip about a potentially large story. The organization needs to decide if it’s worth spending time investigating over a period of weeks or months to see if it holds water. That decision most likely varies depending on the topic, the industry, and the people it may impact.
One organization spends money investigating Trump’s potential collusion with Russia. The other spends money investigating Hunter Biden’s laptop. The readers of each will see more stories about whichever story an organization has chosen to pursue… regardless of the final outcome.
The editorial section of a paper theoretically is independent of the news section. The editors write out an opinion on a subject that is then considered the opinion of that organization. But more likely than not, the views of the editors correlate with the news that is then reported by their organization. A conservative view most likely means you will see more news stories about frackers being hindered by regulations. A liberal view most likely means stories about Congress blocking subsidies for solar panels.
Just Leave Me In Peace To Read My Paper
As an overthinker myself, I understand that getting too meta about anything can turn your brain into meta-mush. There’s no reason you can’t just read a news story and say “huh, that’s interesting.” But having a general awareness that a story and the words used to describe the story were chosen for you makes you less likely to treat any one news organ as gospel.
At the very least, defending any news organization as the paragon of objectivity seems a fruitless hill to die on… because how many humans do you know that are objective?