America’s nasty case of “Truth Decay” and how it’s killing our sense of reality

America’s nasty case of “Truth Decay” and how it’s killing our sense of reality

Is there life after death for objectivity?

CultureMay 21, 2019 By Will Brendza

Objective truth is dying in this county. Or, at least it seems that way.

We can all see it happening: media outlets that were once balanced and trustworthy are taking sides, filtering facts through their own ideological lenses; talking heads are feeding us opinions through our television screens; real “fake news” is floating around the internet like garbage in the ocean; and news agencies are all pointing accusing fingers at one another, blaming anyone but themselves for having fueled these fires of uncertainty and misinformation.

It is the trouble of our time: there is so much happening all around us, always, and almost every media outlet out there is bending reality to fit its own agenda. How is a person supposed to get a handle on The Truth, when it’s always being ideologically twisted?

A recent in-depth analysis, published on May 15th by the RAND Corporation (a non-partisian, non-profit thinktank out of California), broke down the causes and consequences of this strange trend, what they are calling “Truth Decay.” They analyzed thousands of news reports from 1983 to 2017, looking at content from 15 different news outlets including print, television and digital media journalism, searching for repeating patterns in words and phrases.

What RAND found was neither reassuring nor surprising: a “gradual and subtle shift” toward a less objective form of journalism.

“Journalism in the U.S. has become more subjective and consists less of the detailed event- or context-based reporting that used to characterize news coverage.” The report reads.

Which is a nice way of saying that original, fact-based reporting is withering like a late-stage AIDS patient. Particularly among television media sources. Prior to the year 2000, the RAND study found that broadcast news was far more likely to include “complex academic and precise language” as well as complex research. After 2000? That shifts drastically.

Broadcast news in the years since 2000 has become a lot more focused on on-air personalities (ie Bill O’Rielly and Rachel Maddow) and people debating the news. Talking heads host guests to present “alternative facts” that support their line of thinking, and lord over panels that shout, argue and generally make an unintelligible fuss on screen, creating more confusion than clarity.

All of which has made broadcast news ratings skyrocket across the board.

More traditional newspapers (particularly local newspapers) made a far less distinct shift towards the subjective — but a shift nevertheless. 

“Our analysis illustrates that news sources are not interchangeable, but each provides mostly unique content, even when reporting on related issues,’’ Bill Marcellino, a behavioral and social scientist with RAND and one of the report’s co-authors said. “Given our findings that different types of media present news in different ways, it makes sense that people turn to multiple platforms.”

These days, if you want to piece together a clear picture of what’s actually happening in the world, you’re going to have to refer to multiple different news sources. One article, video and segment at a time and eventually, reality will start to emerge from the collage.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was just a singular place that you could go to for that? A single news source you could trust to give you unadulterated, un-biased fact-based news? Wouldn’t it be cool if someone could set aside their ideology to give people a clear picture of what’s going on?

According to the US News & World Report’s 2019 countries ranking 63% of people believe that such a news source doesn’t exist anymore. That’s almost two thirds of the population who believe that objective journalism lies dead in the water.  

Fortunately, that’s not exactly the case. Vanessa Otero, a Boulder-based patent lawyer published a chart in 2018 that illustrates just how ideologically split our media scene truly is. And while it shows that most news outlets lean one way or another, there are still a couple of them that practice unbiased “original fact-based reporting.”

News media bias chartChart credit: mediabiaschart.com; Vanessa Otero.

ReutersAssociated Press, and C-SPAN.  If you want the facts, cut, dry and simple, those are the best outlets to turn to. Otherwise, you’re probably going to get your reality filtered through someone’s ideological lens.

While it’s comforting on a certain level, to know that objective journalism is still alive on planet Earth, still being upheld by at least three news outlets, it’s also disconcerting to see just how many sources lean to the left or right, and how far they lean. It’s difficult to imagine the schism that Otero’s chart illustrates getting any smaller any time soon, especially considering RAND’s findings, that it’s been getting wider and wider ever since 2000.

But there is still hope (among some). While the bias of the media is almost assuredly bound to get worse in the coming years, some remain optimistic that this division and confusion is not sustainable. Some remain hopeful that it will get bad enough, that The People cry out for a return to the objective — for a return to reality.

Which would be nice. If it ever happens. For now, though, the problem of Truth Decay in America is probably going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.