September 26, 2018

Becoming smarter news consumers: The guide to not falling for media hidden agendas

The part the media have in our lives is not something to undermine. Each and every one of us relies on one of the various media forms to receive information on recent events. In the last couple of decades, the news sources we rely on become more and more varied. From the choice between a sole news channel on television and a daily paper, we can now choose between a variety of websites, channels and papers. The many choices help us to be able to read the custom content we are interested in. This customization can make people from two far ends of the world come together, but on the other hand, it can enlarge the differences between different communities.

The common perspective we have of journalists is of people who are the voice of truth, and that news channels/newspapers/websites provide us with impartial information regarding recent events. What many of us are unaware of, is that the media is in no way “impartial” or “balanced.” In fact, journalists have an important role in shaping the reader’s perspective on various issues.

By picking certain stories and themes, the media dictate to us what to talk about and what to think about these topics. Researchers have shown that the more headlines a certain topic receives via media, the more the people find it important. Stories which appear on the left side of the paper will subconsciously be perceived to be more important than the ones on the right side.  A story that will still be discussed in the media the next day will also be the story we will keep talking about.

Journalists basically frame relevant topics and issues, so that the exact same story can be presented in different ways on different media. While appearing completely objective and neutral, the articles read or viewed always have a hidden agenda. Even if it is not explicit or intentional, it’s always there, sneaking into our minds, and shaping our point of view.

Israeli researcher Izhak Roe’e presented a unique way of looking at news reports. Roe’e claimed that the average news report often portrays a plotline which is familiar with the fairytales and fictional stories we’ve often read as children. Those plotlines portray values we were taught. A news report is often similar to a fiction story by having a clear plotline, including an opening line, a conflict and a lesson for us to learn. Sometimes, a suggestion for further treatment of the subject is added.

There are several rather recognizable plotlines that appear in Israel-related articles. These repeating plotlines, conveying certain messages, are the framing each media source chooses to use. Familiar themes which often appear on articles regarding Israel are “us against the world”, “good vs. bad”, “strong against weak”. These themes can be used both ways, depending on the tone of the article, and the side which its writer picks. If those themes sound familiar to you, it’s because they are. Those plotlines are used in many stories we know. “Us against the world”, for instance, reminds me of Romeo and Juliet. “Strong against weak” reminds me of the story of David and Goliath. It may strike your imagination in a different way, but the bottom line is that those new plotlines, which resemble a fictional story, attract the readers.

The framing of news, using familiar and somewhat legendary themes, not only attracts us to the article, but also plays with our minds a little bit. Reading an article which tells how the UN Human Rights Council examines Israel instead of Syria, makes us see Israel as the poor kid in class, whom everybody picks on. As readers, we tend to feel sorry for the kid. The same effect can be implied in an article that tells the sad story of the Palestinians living in the West Bank, who, after constant suffering and ignorance by the Israeli government, had to turn to the UN for help.

Take the Jerusalem synagogue terror attack from last November. Those who read Ynetnews saw it as a terror attack against Jews in Israel, but those tho read CNN saw it as a random attack against both Jewish and Palestinians:

     

How can we overcome the framing obstacle and dig out the news from the stack of agendas?

1. In order to notice the media framing and read the news beyond the agenda, we must become “critical readers.” That means to try and read important news on several newspapers/websites/channels. The differences between the coverages would help us tell apart the actual news from the version of the news.

2. The second thing we need to do is to ask ourselves the following questions while reading a news story: Who is being presented and who does not? Which side is being presented first? Which last? What words are being used by the editor in the headline (“pro-Palestinians,” “anti-Israelis” and “human rights activists” are descriptions used in papers for the same group of people.)  Who represents each side (Prime minister/ a citizen/ “the police”?) What words are being used in relation to quotes coming from those representatives (“claims”/”says”?) On what aspects of the story does the report/coverage focus?  What does NOT appear in the coverage and perhaps should?

Remember to always be aware that behind the words you read sit people with opinions. Even though their job is to hand us the truth, plain, simple and agenda-free – it is almost never the case. Always think before you “take in” what you read, always question what you read, always try to learn more. Only then, make up your mind.

 

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