I can’t stand watching the news on TV. First and foremost this is because most of the places I see the news on TV – restaurants, waiting rooms, etc. – seem to always put on Fox News, and Fox News is barely news, and studies show that people who use it as a primary news source are actually less informed than people who don’t watch the news at all. That study is from 2012, and I’m certain it has only gotten worse since.
Second, most news shows and channels always want to make news a discussion, and in order to do that they have on guests, and they always want to have guests from “both sides” of the argument.
Often this mainly serves to misrepresent that the two sides are equal. As John Oliver showed on Last Week Tonight, having 1 scientist who says climate change is happening and having 1 scientist who says it isn’t doesn’t accurately represent that 97% of scientists support the climate change model. It makes it look like it is a 50/50 split, which it is not.
But more damaging, it often allows people to think that there are two sides. Take climate change again. It’s happening. That is a 100% irrefutable fact. If you look at charts of temperatures for global models… well, they don’t call it a “hockey stick” graph for nothing. It is relatively straight for a long period of time with a natural up and down cycle and then right at the end – the last hundred years – there is this sharp upward swing. The only people who can deny that are people who just flat out deny reality, deny science – like people who think the universe is only 6,000 years old. The only debate is a) how much are humans responsible for the upward swing, and b) can humans arrest the upward swing. But that’s not how discussion get framed on the news. That’s too much knowledge and nuance. Instead, they bring on one guy to say “Look, it snowed outside. How can we have Global Warming if we still have snow?” and they bring on another guy to say “Because it’s more complicated than that.” And the audience is left thinking there is still debate over climate change.
Another way I like to think of it… if the question is “Which color is better, blue or green?” then you can have “both sides” argue it out, because which color is better is 100% opinion (at least until you get into specifics like “which color, blue or green, is better for reflecting more heat?”). But if the question is “Are blue and green colors?”, the answer is “Yes.” and you don’t have someone arguing the other side, because there IS no other side.
This false idea that everything has two sides and the way news programs approach it is having a detrimental effect on the viewers. For a good explanation of this phenomenon, check out this Slate article about the subreddit AskHistorians policy of banning Holocaust Deniers. The short version: Just allowing the Holocaust Deniers to engage in discussion lends credibility to their position – even if they don’t specifically deny the Holocaust outright, their questioning of minutiae allows the casting of doubt in the viewers. “Why, if this one little tiny thing is wrong, then what else could be wrong?”
And then there is the secret truth: Holocaust Deniers don’t actually think the Holocaust didn’t happen. They absolutely know it happened, but they AGREE with it, and maybe feel like it didn’t go far enough. They want to sow doubt so they can discredit people who oppose their (white) nationalist ideas, and they can normalize their other positions – like deporting people of color, or arresting all illegal immigrants and taking their children from them as hostages.
These sorts of things are why we need to improve public education in this country. Because there is another factor out there called the Dunning-Kruger effect. In short, people are terrible at judging how competent they are at a task or skill they are not competent in. And we currently have a president who believe that he knows better than the experts in all area, despite having no education or training in most (if not all) of those areas.
People need to be educated, at least a little, in most subjects – just enough to recognize that when someone is just telling you a bunch of facts there is no “other side” being kept from you. They are just facts.