Who wants to play headline Mad Libs?
When Trump announced the government would consider subsidizing farmers for revenue lost due to tariffs, we saw three variations on the headline, “Trump to offer _______ to farmers after the market reaction to tariffs hit them hard.”
This makes for a very clear framing of how bias and framing are used in headlines. It also raises another question that I’ve heard a lot lately – is this a form of propaganda?
I’m saying no, but the reason isn’t going to make you feel all warm and fuzzy either.
Propaganda seeks to influence your opinion on some issue. If you weren’t sure how to think of tariffs, were aware of your own uncertainty, and just walked out of the bomb shelter you were living in for 20 years to read any one of those headlines – maybe then it would be propaganda.
But none of us are crawling out from under a rock, now are we?
Instead, we’ve already “liked” the news source that’s providing the headline to us, subscribed to their daily email, or are hearing the news from somebody else who already completed those steps.
Media (and most content these days) is opted-into. Once captive, their ultimate goal is – beyond running a business and therefore selling ads – is to reflexively hold and validate our opinions, whatever they may be.
Propaganda is an opt-out only phenomenon. It’s presented to us and then we have to choose to accept or ignore it. Depending on the strength of the authority doing the propagandizing, attention may be compulsory. Modern media doesn’t work that way.
The economics of our modern reality is what allows smaller and fringier outlets to exist, changing the competitive landscape for the big stalwarts. Do you think the companies behind Dan Rather and Connie Chung had to figure out how to compete with the Alex Jones’ of their times? Of course not – they were reserved to an alt-book store pamphlet. Now, with YouTube and the internet, well – the time’s they are a-changin’.
When it’s as simple as picking out one word that can pluck our emotional strings as we saw in yesterday’s headlines, it becomes a teaching example. We have to not miss these opportunities to have this conversation.
The media doesn’t want us to ask “what’s actually right,” so much as they want us to say “that sounds right.”
They aren’t engaged in propaganda, they’re engaged in enabling our biases that brought us to them in the first place.
Let’s not end on a downer. What can we do beyond point this stuff out?
It’s harder than ever to be an intelligent consumer of media content, but it can be done. We can all learn to spot the Mad Libs by reading opposing sources. If you love CNN, try Fox too, and vice versa. I’m not saying it will change your mind, but it will heighten your awareness.
We have to want to pop our filter bubbles. We have to learn to “like” our dislikes.