What is the underlying backbone to democracy? What about the backbone to our own empathy? It’s free speech. In American Civilization, an 11th grade history-English interdisciplinary class, students recently watched a documentary on Ed Murrow and his sacrifice for fighting against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s politics of fear.
The politics of fear strategy, or the concept of inciting fear in the general public to create support for one’s own agenda, has been used consistently in the past to gain political traction. The concept was coined by American sociologist Barry Glassner, and the strategy is still present today. However, Ed Murrow, an acclaimed reporter with CBS News, was one of the few people able to counter the influence of McCarthy, revealing an important structure of democracy: the news. The news was what helped the public gain awareness of the inauthenticity of these tactics, because it gave multiple opinions and viewed stories from different perspectives. But what caused Murrow to sacrifice his career, a demonstration of how interconnected our world has come today, is the corporate component. After airing his show against McCarthy, CBS lost some of its sponsors, which cost Murrow’s show See It Now. One of the most daring reporters was relegated to sitting in the back of the room for the rest of his career because he presented an alternate viewpoint that brought perspective to a situation that we now think was against the ideals of democracy.
The corporate component of the news is what causes the news to become biased towards what people want to hear, or what they already agree with politically. Since news companies rely on sponsorships from corporate companies and money from their subscribers to be profitable, they have to target their news towards their readers and cater to their sponsors. Consequently, news sources have profited by honing their advertising strategy and thus their revenues by echoing the beliefs of the narrow target audience that their sponsors are trying to reach.
Additionally, since the surge of “fake news,” people are more unlikely to trust other news sources, sticking to one that resonates with us and inadvertently falling into the trap of a lack of perspective. It’s because we only read news from one side of the story, or only hear of news sources that cater to a subset of people.
Most of the time, the way that facts are presented influences how they are absorbed, so even if an article is mostly factual, it is still presented with a bias. It’s the same way students learn to use textual evidence in essays—to use them in a way that proves our argument. If people stick to one news source, they neglect to account for the other biases and lose awareness of others’ opinions.
News sources need reliable revenue streams, but also can’t be too dependent on one group without risking their freedom of speech. Individuals need to access varied sources from different biases in order to make informed opinions, but also have to be wary of reading fake news. Unfortunately, it’s unknown exactly what makes the perfect balance in a news source, or if it is even possible.