Take a stroll through Centennial Olympic Park and you can reach the renowned Georgia Aquarium from CNN Studios in 12 minutes flat (walking of course, because no one has time for driving in ATL traffic weekday or otherwise). But in practice, media and fish have a lot more in common than close proximity in the Hollywood of the South.
The media’s byproduct of news is the creation and maintenance of fish bowl perspectives.
Fish know this experience well. You know the type: the prize for the kindergartner who successfully chucks a plastic sphere into a glass jar, which now becomes home.
Throw some rainbow-colored pebbles at the base. Sprinkle some little, red flakes. This is home.
Oh, and the big, blue eyes staring back at me like Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids when he locates his children in the front lawn.
We are like these county fair prizes, dropped in our own bowls of categories and labels. But the irony is that we look at others in their habitats and think they are the only ones stuck behind millimeters of glass.
Being an advocate and mentor for sustainable, equitable, holistic community development (lots of adjectives — I know — but necessary with something as complicated as developing human beings), I run around circles of people that, in the history of America, leads to frequent conversations on the wire, in social media comments and around dinner tables.
The news for the last 991 days that has swept our papers, feeds and coffee conversations is my every day. My neighbors’ every day. And we are being studied by everyone.
CNN. Fox. Infowars. The Guardian. The New York Times. Comedy Central. SNL.
As someone who has studied and worked in the media world, it is a phenomenal experience to directly be the source of novel, shocking updates for the world to receive — especially when knowing how the formation of news works and gauging to see how the facts are interpreted.
And in an increasingly fast-paced, hyper-tailored world of content suited for me, myself and I, we need to begin asking questions to avoid moments like I did in 2017 (my case study for illustrating these questions). We need to know — unlike the proverbial fish — why we’re wet too and what we’re going to do about it.
1. By what lens was the information we are reading gathered?
Everyone has an angle. I hate to burst the bubble (no pun intended), but there is no truly objective journalism. It sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t understand how the brain processes, organizes and associates information.
Nor the desire to belong, which marketers love and media content curates toward micro-affinities.
If we are going to break out of the fish bowl and discover what we are looking at properly, the cycle of information being interpreted, acted upon and re-communicated needs to be re-circuited.
So, you need to have a glimpse into what it feels like through my lens, as I cannot broadly brushstroke that this exact mindset is shared by everyone (which is why much of this article is written in the first-person). But I would argue that based on conversations and interactions with those who live on this side of the glass — it’s a shared experience.
Regardless of my lens, it should construct a perspective that considers self worth and the value and dignity of others.
It is critical to foster a lens that stewards knowledge toward peacemaking.
I say that this is shared through my lens, because it is critical to recognize that no information is presented in pure, objective form. The facts can be true, but the organization of the facts and the subsequent interpretations are filtered through the lens of the observer.
Case in point are these two articles posted 10 minutes apart from one another on January 30, 2017, after a shooting that occurred in Quebec City:
Both present the same facts, but both order them differently and set the tone for how the reader will interpret them. This interpretation is sometimes intentionally guided by the ordering of the article. Other times, it is merely produced unconsciously without the writer even realizing what she or he has done.
It’s like a fish swimming in water, not knowing it is possible for other living creatures to run or fly.
2. Through what lens was the information we are presented interpreted?
Not only do we need to know whose lens gathered the information; we need to know how they interpreted it. Two witnesses can describe two vastly different scenarios to a scene yet both walk away with a unblemished polygraph result. *Insert thanks to neuroscience.*
Keeping up with both the stories from Quebec City and drawing from much of the news revolving around forcibly displaced peoples since the Paris attack on November 13, 2015, here’s what I have found. Mainstream media — those operated by large companies known as conglomerates like Fox, CNN and MSNBC (Mickey Mouse rules us all) — and alternative media — those who have an online presence like National Review, Info Wars and Huffington Post — have created a cycle of pitting their interpretations of these events in an endless game of Pong.
The public digests and vomits this information across social media, which rallies a response and polarization. This response is captured by the news, further fueling the tit for tat bickering.
In mass communication theory, this is known as the spiral of silence. Dominant opinions enter the fray in addition to deviant opinions, but the voices of the deviant opinion are gradually silenced by the dominant ideas communicated.
Aside: Please read carefully that the public digests and vomits this. I did not choose those words loosely. Far too often I see the public accuse different forms of media, but such accusations fail to realize the reality of the media today.
3. How might reading a variety of sources help guard against information bias?
Remember, no medium is objective despite what their slogan says. The media, like most markets in a free enterprise society, function based on buyers’ demands. It is the very want of the public to have startling, divisive content that perpetuates the necessity for audacious content to be provided by the news, neglecting to report on non-audacious facts. We feed this cycle as much as the media does.
All the while, the real issues and voices invested in what triggered all of this are ignored or stereotypically brushstroked. We polarize around not mere facts, but real human beings with real lives and real hurts and real dreams.
I want to use two opinion articles as examples to illustrate this. They look at the discussion about President Donald Trump’s actions around refugees with those of the previous administration. I chose to use Fox News and CNN as examples since both sides present facts while interpreting them in polarizing ways.
From Fox News:
In the larger picture, there are two sides to this emotional debate. What’s been overshadowed is the need for better vetting to stop terrorists from coming into this country by posing as refugees or overstaying their visas.
Also overshadowed: that President Obama banned Iraqi refugees for six months in 2011 (though the parallels are not exact), and that the seven predominantly Muslim countries covered by the order were identified by the Obama administration. (Fox News, “Media’s ‘chaos’ coverage of refugee ban may obscure the terror debate,” 31 Jan 2017)
Don’t blame us, blame them. In the face of mounting criticism, controversy and lawsuits over its immigrant travel ban, the Trump administration is pointing fingers at the previous occupant of the White House, trying to make the case that its policy is legitimate because Barack Obama did it, too. […]
It speaks volumes that Trump’s mean-spirited refugee ban has led to such disorder at home and abroad. Yet he cannot fairly tie his predecessor to this still-unfolding crisis. Leave Obama out of it; Trump owns this entire mess. (CNN, “Why Trump on immigration is nothing like Obama,” 1 Feb 2017)
Both present facts, yet embedded within them are these two respective paragraphs that interpret those facts.
The Fox opinion writer rightly identifies that we are missing the initial issue, which was vetting. However, the rest of his piece suggests that the debate has caused us to ignore vetting while himself perpetuating the debate with an either-or, reductionistic interpretation. He fuels the polarization.
The CNN opinion writer rightly presents facts in response to President Trump’s statement by equating Trump’s actions as similar to former President Barack Obama’s policies. But the writer then ends the article pointing fingers back at President Trump, after criticizing through fact how the President has done the same finger pointing. He fuels the polarization.
Amid all this polarization, Infowars interprets the situation in this video.
The facts are shared, interpreted, acted upon and then re-communicated. In this case, the actions of polarization create new information that is another degree removed from the initial facts with additional interpretations embedded.
Knowing the lens and expanding readership helps, but we co-create in how we manage information too.
4. How can we steward information in a way that seeks flourishing rather than destruction?
Up to this point, the questions are orbiting around the idea of information. But knowledge is not the end; human flourishing is.
Knowing where information originates is a start. But then it is ourselves choosing how we will re-communicate information that avoids the very cycle from which it starts.
Back to 2017 for illustrating what I mean.
An executive order was signed into effect on January 27, 2017, that essentially halted the refugee program for 120 days, with varying degrees of intensity and scope beyond that. The news immediately began interpreting the events.
The public polarized around these interpretations. Misinformation spread as ideology camps formed. Some argued we need to leave our borders open and could not believe others would want to close our borders. Others argued they did not want the borders fully closed but needed a process that was secure. Still others honestly did not know what to think and tried to continue life unchanged. The rest wanted nothing to do with refugees. Period.
All the while, those of us on the ground saw the ban as illogical, not specifically regarding Muslims, but to the far-reaching extent that this ban would see refugee resettlement as the source of security threats based on the vetting process. Those closest to the actual issue argued that the disagreement ensuing did not understand the situation and that our borders were not wide-open like Europe. Further, we argued that a vetting process was in place that could not guarantee with 100 percent accuracy no future crime could be done by a refugee but was the most secure means by which anyone could enter the country after an 18- to 24-month vetting process.
As those of us on the ground attempted to speak into the balance and understand why people landed on their conclusions, we (I) would be labeled falsely, because that was how the information was being received and interpreted by dominant opinions.
The Infowars video best presents the reductionistic lens by which everything is interpreted. It essentially goes like this: If you are for refugees, then you believe that the ban is a “Muslim ban,” you think you are on a moral high-horse with protests welcoming refugees, and you were silent about any previous US interventions that directly impacted the current global refugee crisis.
Is that accurate?
As someone who welcomes refugees in life and work, no.
I never called it a “Muslim ban” nor have I ever made that my point of contention with the order.
I never attended a protest and have been trying to understand various positions on the situation rather than believe I have all the answers figured out.
But the media’s misappropriation — and readers mislabeling — has only complicated the situation and made it more difficult for practitioners like myself to work effectively.
5. In what ways are we interpreting complex issues of a broken world through a reduced lens?
Like the Johari window illustrates, every person possesses blindspots that cause us to not see things about ourselves and our world accurately. At a cultural level, there are elements that are completely unknown without outside perspective offered. For those of us in America, we have a cultural knack for thinking like a computer when it comes to life: 0’s and 1’s. Either-or.
Your lens matters as much as the media’s.
Back to the narrative of 2017. What started as two interpretations led to reducing the whole argument into those that recognize the issue is vetting and those who choose to enter the chaos.
So, community in the North where I grew up began to interpret from afar my actions through the information they received in the media. Rather than have discussions around sustainable development, I would visit home and have to unpack why I still valued security.
I was reduced to a sound bite rather than a human being — from people who have known me since birth.
Part of me being an actor in the very cycle I am unpacking is to not maintain a reductionistic lens. It’s especially tempting when there is a need to defend oneself.
I have to stop and remember my own dignity as I seek to then re-elevate the view of others’ dignity.
So, I choose to not presume that if you are against refugees and hate the Obama administration, then you are Islamophobic and have no care for anything happening outside of America.
But I also choose to not reduce these stereotypes to say that they cannot exist. I know there are those who are for refugees butthink that this is just about a Muslim ban and are completely ignorant to what previous administrations (plural) have done to perpetuate our current global situation. And I know there are those who are not for refugees because they do fear Islam, want to preserve American culture from every outside force and follow Trump unapologetically.
But I choose to act upon and re-circuit the conversation. I choose to write this to help you and us be better stewards in a day of so much knowledge and information at our fingertips.
A failure to pursue peacemaking out of the information we possess is a failure to advocate.
6. In what ways are we advocating but not doing?
I pose this question to you, the reader. It doesn’t have to be the events of 2017. What is happening right now that you can begin asking the previous questions and then tangibly take a step of righting how you act in response?
Think small with this. You might not be tied to refugees like I am; don’t try to implement change on something over which you do not have influence.
Maybe it is local town politics and misinformation that has spread and hurt the long-term vision for the community.
Maybe it is a local business that is not thriving because of a polarized discussion.
Proper accumulation of knowledge leads to proper re-communication of such information, which should then be stewarded toward action.
At the end of the day, if this article only serves as knowledge and not an attempt to better honor human beings and bring life into our communities and circles, it has failed to be used with its intended purpose.
May we share, post, tweet, talk, protest and advocate through deeds that seek the flourishing and promotion of life and dignity in ourselves and others.
7. How could our words cultivate life in this situation?
To break the cycle of silence and hyper-tailored information in the circles of our influence, it comes full cycle back to words. What words will we speak vulnerably, honestly and transparently? It is imperfect, but it can start with simply acknowledging the lens by which you look at life, knowing others might have an opposing perspective.
Adherents of the Christian faith attribute Paul of Tarsus to writing a letter around A.D. 63 that I think poignantly leads us to not merely be fish out of water. He invites us to ask if it’s worth jumping back in:
Remind the people […] to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. […] Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order to provide for urgent needs and not live unproductive lives (Titus, 3:1–2, 14, Holy Bible, New International Version, 2011).