The Appeal of Dishonesty and Bad News

Why are we content with dishonesty in the media, and why do we so avidly consume “news” about crime and tragedies?

I’ve been pondering the comment, “We no longer have news organizations dedicated to fair and balanced reporting that educates instead of indoctrinating the public” on the first post in this series.

The superficial answer is it’s what we’re accustomed to, what we grew up with.  Maybe we realize “the news” is not to make us less ignorant but to stimulate our emotions so we will want to buy things, as I explored in this post, but how does it work?

Let’s start with “balanced reporting.”  That means a balance between how things look from left and right in the sphere of domestic affairs.  More specifically, it means things are not presented in a way to polish the Democratic or Republican Party brands.

How about “indoctrinating the public?”  It is indoctrination when a proposed tax change is presented through the prism of a political party’s tax policy brand: when facts about the proposal are selected and highlighted based on how closely they align with ‘taxes bad,’ ‘soak the rich’ or some such slogan.

It is likely to be indoctrination when we see warfare and civil violence in other parts of the world.  Why?  Because the implication usually is that such things do not happen here, but they will if we don’t keep “those people” from coming here.

We have an idea of what makes us different: we are rugged individuals who take care of our own, we are freedom-lovers, we are can-do people.  The problem with labeling ourselves as Americans and assigning such properties to the label is it means we also characterize un-Americans.

Un-Americans might be Canadians, Mexicans, or stateless Islamic terrorists.   They might just have a funny accent and silly ideas about governance, they might sneak in and take our jobs, or they might come and blow us up.  At best they are harmlessly inferior, at worst our mortal enemies.

The problem is branding in a sphere where it is not a helpful convenience but a stimulus of hatred.  Branding saves us time when we buy things.  We don’t have to look at every can of soup because we’ll be happy with the brand we trust.

But what if we’re a Marlboro man?  That’s branding of a specific product, Marlboros, and a product category, cigarettes.  The Marlboro branding leverages our self-concept of rugged individualism, freedom-loving and so on.  It also leverages branding that makes us ignore tobacco’s impact on our health .

And the effects grow darker when we identify so strongly with the Democratic Party as to demonize Republicans or vice versa, or we become a crusading Christian or Muslim.

In fact, the problem begins when we become a partisan.  Joining with others to promote policies favored by a political party or interest group is not a problem.  That’s how democracy works, the least worst way we have yet found to govern.

Following the teachings of Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad (alphabetical order) or others who gained wisdom is good because they help us grow better.

The problem begins when we believe there is something wrong with those who do not follow our practice.  That leads not to growing better but to hatred.

However, we’re still at a superficial level.  Why do we become partisans?  Why do we identify so strongly with our tribe, American, Democrat, Christian or whatever that we end up hating those we identify as members of a different tribe?

Why do we watch news that we know is less than honest, certainly not balanced, and that motivates us to hate (or envy) others?

Because we want our beliefs confirmed.  We want to feel we are not alone.  We want security.

Feeling our connection with others is good.  Mistaking that feeling for an idea about our nature, however, that is not good.  It gets us thinking, “I am one of those who are superior (or unfairly inferior) to others”  and then we start thinking it’s OK for us to attack them.

The ultimate root of the problem is our desire for security.

I asked, “how [can we] encourage more people to WANT honesty [in the media?]”  What each of us can do is speak up about harmful untruths and publicly debate legislative changes because that helps us recognize when we (ourself) don’t know or misinterpret some facts.

What I do not know is how we can educate ourselves to differentiate between facts and beliefs.  According to a 2001 Gallup poll, for example, about 45% of Americans believe “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  Whether or not we believe in a Creator is a belief — we cannot know.  We do know, however, that human beings were not created in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.

If we don’t see the difference between religious beliefs and facts we will also not see the difference between political or any other kind of beliefs and facts.

I will return to education in future posts.  There must be a way to motivate making it more effective.

Returning to the root problem and what each of us can do about that, we can recognize that ultimately there is no security.  We are both utterly alone and inextricably connected, not fundamentally different from those “over there.”  Every single one of us will end up old, weak and dead.  Unless we first grow sick.  Which could happen at any moment.

Ultimate safety doesn’t lie in beliefs about the rightness of “people like me” and the wrongness of others.  The only real security is being OK with the fact that there is no security and therefore nothing to worry about.  Recognizing that requires re-training, which I can testify is long and initially hard work but which I’ve seen in others is ultimately fruitful.

So we must point out the harm untruths cause and even more important, eradicate our own false ideas.  There is no silver bullet against poison in the media.

3 comments on “The Appeal of Dishonesty and Bad News

  1. Another way to say it is, please let us all try harder to avoid tribalism. When we think of ourselves as members of a tribe our individual beliefs are framed not by reality, critical thinking, facts, data, or rationality, but by what we accept, believe, and agree with as a group.

  2. More about belief versus facts:

    Every two years, the National Science Foundation reports survey data for how Americans (and those in other countries) answer basic scientific questions such as “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” The results of the most recent survey, conducted in 2012 with more than 2,200 adults, include that one in four Americans believes the earth goes round the sun.

    Looking a little deeper suggests we have not just a serious lack of knowledge but also a disturbing preference for belief over facts.

    In response to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” only 48% of Americans responded “true” but when it was phrased, “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” half again as many, 72%, answered “true.”

    So while almost three in four Americans are familiar with the theory of evolution only two in four believe it is true.

  3. Mark wrote: “The research described in this article made me think of your blog post about news – I think getting answers from partisan news has a similar effect as what this describes:”

    The bottom line: “According to newly published research by Azim Shariff, who heads the Culture and Morality Lab of the University of Oregon Department of Psychology, individuals relying on their social groups can find solutions but also pre-empt the motivation for independent analytical thinking.”

    “If you have a good enough system to get information, you don’t have to think at all,” said Shariff. “You don’t need to develop a solution yourself. The problem with that, from a cultural evolutionary standpoint, is that if nobody is actually out there discovering solutions, if everybody is just imitating things, we create no new knowledge. We need people who are actually figuring out these questions.”

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