Communication of News Information

by Dana Piatt and Reese Hawk

“It is as if we have a populace that is well informed about the score of a game, but without any knowledge of the rules, and worse still no effective direction to find credible sources to explain them. It is perhaps no surprise that public discussions often devolve to mere tribalism. It is far easier to base decisions on who supports what than to delve into an issue yourself.” Gavin Schmidt, The Disconnect Between News and Understanding

We now live in a world where people no longer rely only on television news reports or a newspaper as their only form of information. Facebook, twitter, websites, blogs, informational programming, and documentaries all sources of information for people in today's age. These changes in sources of information also coincide with changes in the presentation of news information. The language used to relay information is not always strictly factual. People are subjected to different forms of language, from scientific to emotionally appealing, and objective to biased stances. The way news information is presented could be critical to what people pay attention to, what they take away from it, and how they are affected overall. A lack of meaningful news coverage has also become apparent in today's age. News often comes in quick, attention grabbing headlines, without imploring the audience to research more. The new forms of news information favor quick and easy news access. In addition, we live in a time when people are more concerned about the latest celebrity scandal versus world news. Finding a way to present important current events in a way that appeals to the general public and informs them is crucial to spreading meaningful news to a larger population. Understanding both of these topics could lead to better news coverage of important events.

How People Perceive Information

How people perceive information that the news presents is very important. If the sources of information people use are in some way biased, they may be swayed to believe the sources' opinions, and be unmotivated to do more research about the topic. Several articles have explored how biases, opinions, and frames can influence how people perceive the information they take in.

Objectivity vs. Bias

Cramer and Eisenhart's article, Examining Readers’ Evaluations of Objectivity and Bias in News Discourse (2014), explored how people perceive objectivity and bias in news coverage. They used two methods: one was the Corpus Selection Study that asked students to select two sentences (of their choice) from news coverage and submit them online, labeling one objective and one biased, the other method was the Article Evaluation Study that had students read two articles presented to them, and then they rated each on an objectivity/bias scale, identify words/parts of the text that were objective or bias, and why they chose those words/parts.

Through analysis of the Corpus Selection Study, certain lexical items were found more frequently in the biased versus the objective sentences. “[S]emantically light function words such as 'it,' 'n't,' 'is,' 'that,' and 'be'” (p. 286) were found frequently in the sentences labeled biased. In a majority of the sentences where “it” was found (42 out of 51 occurrences), “it” was also the subject of a clause. “It,” “is,” and “that” were also found frequently in conjunction with words that, combined, created markers of stance, “such as 'it's pretty clear that,' 'it really is cruel,' 'it should be the embodiment,' [and] 'it proves once and for all that” (p.288). “[N]'t” was also frequently found to occur in biased-labeled sentences. “Negative linguistic forms are conventional stance markers” (p. 286). The use of “n't” was seen in different forms (part of “to be,” “to do,” “modal,” as well as “copular” and “auxiliary”) and it was attributed to quoted speech, indirect speech, and not related to speech. In regards to the objectively labeled sentences, “more semantically heavy common and proper nouns, such as 'earthquake,' 'Suamtra,' [and] 'tsunami'” (p. 287) were frequently found. Many readers chose sentences that were reporting on the same event (an earthquake in Sumatra) and “seven chose a similar or identical sentence about that event” (p. 290). Sentences about a school lock down in response to a shooting were also submitted. The objective sentences were often noted to have be reported with “declarative certainty and contain[ed] no stance markers” (p. 291). The objective sentences presented facts in a “matter-of-fact” way and did not include bias phrases as seen in the above quoted phrases from the biased sentences. Through analysis of the Article Evaluation Study, it was found that readers more often marked passages of bias versus passages of objectivity. The researchers found that “[m]any of the items identified as evidence of bias were traditional stance markers” (p. 295). Prenominal adjectives in “incomplete log (7 readers)” and “narrow sample (2 readers)” were both marked as biased (p. 295), as were “complements provid[ing] additional information that contextualized the participant” (p. 295). These compliments followed people's names, thus explaining their title or affiliations. Passages including the word “but,” and passages including “but” and a negative (i.e. “not”), were marked for bias as well. Marking sentences as biased was related to “a communication process designed for the purpose of interpretation and argumentation” (p. 298). In regards to marking objectivity, “readers described a communication process that either lacked purpose, or that had a merely descriptive or expository purpose” (p. 298).

Cramer and Eisenhart's study highlighted that people can pick out and be aware of biased versus objective word use, stances, and other lexical and syntactic uses. In turn, it is likely that news sources are aware of the difference between biased versus objective presentation of events. We are exposed to a large amount of information every day, and it is easy to get lost in it all and not be 100% percent aware of objectivity versus bias presentation. People need to become more aware of when information is presented as biased, and use that as motivation to do more research on the topic before they make their own opinion/decision/stance.

Sources of Information and Styles of Writing

Fabrizi and Ford's article, Sports Stories and Critical Media Literacy, explains a method of teaching an English class to seniors in high school. The course is “Sports Stories” and it “addresses critical media literacy primarily through an inquiry into the murder conviction of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter” (pg. 43), as well as exploring sports articles' uses of different figures of speech and how they are used. The course has the students explore different representations of the event, including a documentary about the case and then looking into nonfiction sources. After being exposed to the different sources of information, most students still side that Carter was innocent. This could be due to two reasons: one is that the students deeply desired to defend the underdog, the other is that their response could have “resulted from the order of presentation of the texts” (p. 44). The students are presented the fiction sources first, then the nonfiction; to counter this, future classes could switch the order of how the sources are presented.

Additionally, the students are introduced to the style of sports writing. They first are given articles to read, one at a time, in class, with passages selected “so that the initial task for students is to identify the figures of speech used in each passage and explain correctly how they are used” (p. 45). The article presents different figures of speech that are “commonly used in writing to move and excite the audience,” such as “repeating words and/or phrases, repeating sounds, [and] exaggerations,” with more sub-figures under each figure of speech. Eventually, students choose a sports journalist, choose several articles written by their journalist, evaluate their journalist's style, and provide evidence in their presentation or essay. Fabrizi and Ford's article explaining this method of teaching an English class shows how perceptions and figures of speech are found throughout different journalist and news areas. While “figures of speech” may be to “move and excite the audience,” this also means they can make people feel a certain way about the sporting event. And there's nowhere that says these figures of speech are limited to sports journalism.

Another aspect of concern in this article is that students still agreed that Carter was innocent, even after being presented with nonfiction sources of information suggesting otherwise. This is a serious worry - documentaries and biography movies are very common, but when compared to the real life story, changes are almost always found. If people watch these movies and decide that is how it is/was/will be, without further inquiry, we are losing people to misinformation, entertainment, and certain biases, causing them to view the subjects in a certain way. Even Discovery Channel, once loved for its presentation of information about the world we live in, is now presenting “documentaries” about mermaids and the Megalodon shark.

Lyenger and Kinder stated that Americans tend to make opinions about experiences that lie beyond their control and understanding. Essentially, they formulate their own bias about certain events based on what little they understand about it. “To be sure, they are preoccupied first and foremost with the immediate concerns of private life: with earning a living, supporting a family, making and keeping friends. But at the same time, they also manage to decide whether huge federal deficits threaten the economy and whether fighting in Latin America threatens national security.” (Gans, 1979)

Personal Observation of How People Perceive Information

I (Dana) have observed this phenomenon of information being skewed (granted, not in a scholarly research setting). In the summer of 2013, the movie Blackfish was released. CNN aired it in October 2013, allowing me the opportunity to view it. This movie focuses on Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando, who has been involved in the death of three people. The movie makes a case that he has become psychotic from living in a zoological facility, that these animals are abused and tormented, and that a life in the wild is a much better option. This movie has caused a spark of numerous anti-SeaWorld posts - Facebook, Twitter, etc. However, this movie first and foremost is made to make the audience feel, not think. Much of the information presented in the movie is from one perspective/bias. Out of date video, splicing of visual and auditory components, and changing the context of quotes and video lessen the validity of this movie. It is troubling, though, that many people have not done more research, or refuse to listen to information that contradicts what Blackfish presents and have thus perceived this movie as truth (69 things wrong with Blackfish lists information misrepresented or skewed with appropriate time stamps). Moreover, some of the former trainers who had participated in the movie are coming forward, saying they were misquoted, their quotes were applied out of context, and that they were mislead by the director (Blackfish Exposed by Former SeaWorld Trainer and More Blackfish Backlash – Tilikum’s Trainer Dives In). Seeing how the perception of information from a “news source” can influence such a large number of people has made me more aware of the power that those who present information have.

Lack of Meaningful News Coverage

Another aspect news coverage is a lack of meaningful news coverage. Society today seems more concerned about what the Kardashians are wearing than politics, economy, and health. A more inclusive news coverage, focusing on meaningful, important topics that are important to our lives - whether we are aware or not - is needed to inform the population. Several articles explore this topic as well, giving insight into this age of entertainment vs. information.

Strauch wrote an article, The Disconnect, in response to Schmidt's original article. She describes how she has noticed a decline in coverage of health and science in general-interest newspapers. Many writers who used to contribute to those topics have been fired, retires, or have moved on to other topics. She notes that while this is going on, though, there is also an increase in interest about the science world. The problem is there is “a high interest and a lot of misinformation floating around.” “[W]e have fewer and fewer places that provide real information to a general audience that is understandable,” and this is where meaningful news coverage would have to make a comeback.

Lyenger and Kinder make many good points about the news media. According to them, they believe that the news has the ability to persuade and effect the masses in an astonishing way. Because of this, proper coverage is essential, as the public opinion can easily be changed. (Gans, 1979)

Lee argues that news outlets are becoming aware of what kind of media the consumer wants. With things such as a “most viewed” category, it creates this weird consumer driven news culture. The highest ranked articles increase in popularity, while those that sit near the bottom remain there. This then shows the news outlet which articles people want to hear about and thus they can alter the news they produce based on that demand. One can argue that this is harmful for our society as it changes how we consume the news which could lead to important topics being ignored while celebrity information takes control.

Prior's article, News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout (2005), researched how people's preference for news or entertainment programming affected political knowledge and turn for voting. His research suggests that it is not necessarily a lack of politically informative knowledge that results in a population of people that are politically uninformed, but that it is a greater choice of entertainment focused programming that allows those who are not interested in news programming to avoid watching political information news.

The first study was The News and Entertainment Survey. The survey was conducted in two waves in 2002 and 2003. This study explored the fact that “television viewers must commit to one particular program. They can either watch entertainment or news, but not both” (p. 580). Using surveys allowing people to rate their preferred programming genres and a large set of political knowledge questions, Prior found a join effect that “greater choice significantly increased political knowledge between the two panel waves for respondents with a week entertainment preference” (p. 582). The survey also asked about if respondents had access to the internet and/or cable; Relative Entertainment Preference (REP) was found to be affected if people had access to new media, but not those with no access. Another notable finding was the “[i]n a high-choice environment, people's content preferences become better predictors of political learning than even their level of education” (p.583).

The second study was a replication in order to provide “a general robustness check” and “to determine if the results hold for different points in the diffusion process of cable TV and the Internet” (p. 584). The data came from the National Election Studies and the Media Consumption Surveys conducted biannually by the Pew Center for the People and the Press. The years studied in these surveys are 1996 and 2000. However, this study was limited by the fact that these studies did not include direct measures of entertainment preference; they only included a few questions about exposure to entertainment shows. In order to infer results from this data set, the ratio of Entertainment Viewing/Entertainment Viewing + News Viewing = Relative Entertainment Preference (REP) was used. The analysis found that the odds of people without cable or internet access to turnout to vote was just above chance, “regardless of their entertainment preference;” those with access showed that the likelihood of them voting “drops from a three-quarter chance among people with the least interest in entertainment to less that .4 among those with the strongest preference for entertainment” (p. 586).

Overall, these analyses showed that “[n]ew media do indeed increase political knowledge and involvement in the electoral process among some people” and that “[o]ther people take advantage of greater choice and tune our of politics completely” (p. 587).

Personal Observation of Meaningful News Coverage

By no means will I (Dana) deny the fact that I prefer entertainment to news television. Two shows that I believe are blending the two is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert. Based on this research, it appears that a lack of meaningful news coverage is not the only problem - it is getting people to pay attention to significant news stories. These two shows manage to be entertaining while getting current events' details out to the public. While I enjoy these shows, I do worry that people will take what they present at face value. These shows are not true “news stations,” so they really should not be a primary source of information. What is beneficial, however, is that these shows can introduce current events to a large audience, which may lead to those people doing more research about an event.

Another entertainment plus information source I have been watching recently is Jon Oliver's Last Week Tonight. While the show is aired on HBO, there are also several videos posted on YouTube. This is another method to reach a larger audience. Again, these videos can not be taken completely at face value, but they also present current events and information, which may get audience members interested in learning more and doing more research.

Another aspect of these shows is that many of their topics get several minutes of air time (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report clips are both of one segment, which are both over 8 minutes long; Last Week Tonight 's clip is just over 7 minutes). Many news stations try to fit in as much information as possible within their allotted time, which may be why certain stories are given priority. These shows have been able to give more information by giving topics more time; part of this could be for entertainment value as well, but staying focused on one topic could also benefit the viewer.

The Buzzfeed Effect

BuzzFeed has over the recent years changed how news is consumed over the internet. Most people nowadays have little desire to read an entire article or watch a long broadcasted news segment. This is evident if one compares the viewer count of The New York Times and BuzzFeed. On average BuzzFeed reaches 130 million unique visitors whereas The New York Times only sees about 32 million. To be fair, this isn't a good comparison as BuzzFeed is not a news focused website as it provides other sources of entertainment like quizes and videos. However, it is still interesting to look at. Someone could easily go to BuzzFeed for a quiz, and suddenly end up reading about a noteworthy news subject because they saw that the article was “buzzing”, which is BuzzFeeds version of other websites “popular articles” section (Müftüoğlu 2014).

At the weekly advertising meeting in the BuzzFeed office, workers discuss ways that they can spread a story. Virgin Mobile is among these people and they assist in coming up with topics that will spread. Their reasoning for doing this is because it has shown to work. By using their name as part of one of BuzzFeeds articles rather than standard banner ads, they were able to increase their sales. Virgin Mobiles CEO Jon Steinberg stated that “People have gave up on doing great compelling brand advertising”. He also states that currently things are like they were when the T.V was first invented. No one knew the proper way to adapt to the medium and it will take some time. According to him, companies have failed to adapt to the medium that is the internet (Rice 2013). With big companies using sites like BuzzFeed to influence the consumer it tends to mix truth with advertisement. Since BuzzFeed ad's are meant to be just as clickable as the articles they post, sometimes the line can be blurred as to what is information and what is an ad wrapped with half baked information.

Sources

Cramer, P., & Eisenhart, C. (2014). Examining readers’ evaluations of objectivity and bias in news discourse. Written Communication, 31(3), 280–303. doi:10.1177/0741088314532429

  http://wcx.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/21/0741088314532429.full.pdf+html

Fabrizi, M. A., & Ford, R. D. (2014). Sports stories and critical media literacy. English Journal, High School Edition, 104(1), 42–47.

  http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/EJ/1041-sep2014/EJ1041Sports.pdf

Gans, H. J. (1979). Deciding what's news: A study of CBS evening news, NBC nightly news, Newsweek, and Time. Northwestern University Press.

Lee, A. M., Lewis, S. C., & Powers, M. (2014). Audience clicks and news placement: A study of time-lagged influence in online journalism. Communication Research, 41(4), 505-530

Müftüoğlu, B. (2014). BuzzFeed Effect – Have Old Media Lost the Digital Battle? Youngsday

Prior, M. (2005). News vs. entertainment: How increasing media choice widens gaps in political knowledge and turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 49(3), 577–592. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2005.00143.x

  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5907.2005.00143.x/pdf
  

Rice, Andrew (2013). Does BuzzFeed know the Secret? The New York Times

Strauch, B. (n.d.). The disconnect. Edge.org. Retrieved September 29, 2014, from http://edge.org/response-detail/23711

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