The Dangerous Blurring of News and Opinion Online
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
There is a piece on The Atlantic that typifies the way the emotional characteristics of a risk can cloud our ability to think about that risk carefully. It also represents the dangers of the new 24/7 online media world, where even the most august and supposedly thoughtful/careful/respected brands in the information media are abdicating their responsibility to the public to separate fact from opinion.
The story, “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods” reports a Chinese study that discovered that microRNAs found in plants survive the digestive process and can be found, whole, in our blood, that they aren’t broken down into their component molecular parts. MicroRNAs are natural little signaling molecules in intercellular communication, among many other normal biological functions.
We ingest them in most of the plants we eat, including rice, the plant the Nature study authors looked at. The author of the Atlantic piece, food columnist Ari Levaux, makes the gigantic and alarmist leap that the microRNAs from genetically modifided (GM) food somehow expose us to unique danger. After all, he notes, “we're eating not just vitamins, protein, and fuel, but information as well.” WHOA! Scary! And he frighteningly notes that microRNAs have been associated with cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. In fact, microRNAs are an intrinsic part of human biology, and the Chinese study suggests we ingest them when we eat all plants. So why the worry about GM foods in particular?
We know from the study of the psychology of risk perception that our fears are a combination of the facts, and how those facts feel, based on some instinctive ‘risk perception factors’, psychological characteristics that make things feel more or less frightening, the facts notwithstanding. GM foods hit several of these affective alarm buttons. They are...
It’s pretty clear that Mr. Levaux is an advocate, and as an advocate he is perfectly entitled to emphasize these emotional characteristics, and cherry pick the facts so they support his argument. The problem is, The Atlantic does nothing to alert the reader, in advance, that they are about to read a piece of opinion. That’s a common and serious problem in this new 24/7 digital world, where ‘brand’ media organizations are expanding their presence on the web - since that’s where readership is going - and the line between reporting and advocacy is being blurred. Unlike newspapers, which run their opinion pieces on special pages in print and under separate links online, ostensibly responsible media organizations like The Atlantic too often present news and opinion all thrown in together, and leave the reader to sort through which is which.
That’s dangerous. The news media not only influence our lives via the gatekeeper function of deciding what stories or information to include and what not to include, and which stories to emphasize and which ones to play down. They also shape what we think by the way the information is framed. When content is specified in some way as “Opinion”, we can protect ourselves against bias because we are forewarned to turn up our critical thinking, our “bu__shit detector”. But bias in what is presented as objective news content is subversive. It sneaks in, posing as fact, and unless we are really careful thinkers - and most of us are not - we are more likely to accept those facts as true, and shape our opinions accordingly.
This is, of course, the insidious danger of Fox News, which clearly sees things through one ideological lens but claims, against all evidence, that their news content is ‘fair and balanced’. It’s not the bias in the content that’s the problem. It’s the misleading deceit that their news content is factual and objective, which is both unethically dishonest - no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on - and dangerous for civil society whenever it happens. Like it’s happening more and more at supposedly trustworthy online news and information sites, where news stories and advocacy pieces run side by side and fact and opinion blur.
In these new days for the New Media, the rules are still being written. Here’s one suggestion. The same wall we’ve always demanded between news and advocacy should be just as tall and resolute online as anywhere else. A media organization needs to clearly distinguish opinion and analysis from what it presents as news and information. Otherwise what the public knows about the world will be a blur of fact and all sorts of biases, which is really harmful to democracy, that needs an informed public. And it's harmful to the fiscal health of any news organization that wants to attract the broadest possible audience of visitors (not just the narrower audience of people who want their news to affirm an ideological point of view, a business strategy working just fine for Fox News) by daring to claim they can be trusted.
Long hidden under trees, it's utterly massive
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