Saturday, June 25, 2011

Climate Change: The Media’s Role in Shaping Public Perceptions and Opinions

Very timely. As I’ve been reflecting recently on the role of the media in shaping public perceptions and our opinions on various policy issues, I recently heard a report on Morning Edition about that very topic.

In the context of the 2012 presidential election, the report addressed the growing public skepticism about climate change. At the same time, scientists are more confident than ever that climate change is happening and it is probably cause by humans. An obvious explanation for this discrepancy is that Americans reject science and/or are skeptical of what scientists tell them.

However, the Morning Edition report indicated that was not necessarily what was going on. The report interviewed Professor Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication. He did a poll that indicated that Americans have an “overwhelming trust” in scientists, but are just not aware of the strong consensus in the scientific community about the reality and cause of climate change. The report cited cable TV and the reading of blogs for the lack of knowledge; from those sources, Americans are getting a more “conflicted view” of the scientific community’s views on climate change, which does not accurately reflect the strong consensus.

It was an interesting report and is available at the link below:

2 Corinthians 4:2

Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Role of Journalism in Shaping Public Perception and Public Opinion

The news is important. It is how we learn what is going on in the world. That knowledge helps shape our political views. If we hear that the employment rate has hit a certain percentage, we may believe that certain policy choices should be taken by our elected representatives. If we find out that the government is spending a certain amount on a particular program, that information may lead us to the conclusion that either more or less should be spent on it. In turn that conclusion may influence our decision about whether taxes should be raised, lowered or kept constant.

Most of us are busy earning a living and taking care of our families. We are not in the halls of Congress when bills get passed, we’re not in the streets of Damascus as Syrians protest against their government, and we’re not in the death chamber when Texas executes another inmate. Journalism is the primary vehicle for bringing the news to us.

The World English Dictionary gives us four definitions for the term “journalism”:
1. the profession or practice of reporting about, photographing, or editing news stories for one of the mass media
2. newspapers and magazines collectively; the press
3. the material published in a newspaper, magazine, etc: this is badly written journalism
4. news reports presented factually without analysis

The fourth one I find particularly insightful. Our ideal of journalism is that a person presents facts to us objectively. We are then left to make our own decisions based on the facts presented. Per our idea, the journalist is an objective third party who tells us impassionately what is going on--without inflicting her own opinions on us.

When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I remember learning in school about the concept of “yellow journalism.” We learned that yellow journalism was problematic in our country in the late 1800s. Press titans like Hearst and Pulitzer tried to sway public opinion by their manipulation of the way news was presented. The sense we had in reading our history books was that this issue of yellow journalism was a problem our country had dealt with in the past. When our parents went home and watched Roger Mudd or John Chancellor, they were getting the straight forward truth of what was going on in the world. At that time, it was a very different situation for our Cold War enemies. TASS was the media mouthpiece of the Soviet Union and did not exactly present an unbiased perspective of the day’s events. But growing up, I took it for granted that our press in the United States was independent and gave us that straight scoop.

Sometime in my late teens I began to hear people complain about bias in the media. In particular, there were complaints that the media had a liberal bent. I didn’t particularly see it, but then again I’ve always been left of center.

In my adulthood, the complaints of liberal bias became more and more pronounced. People turned away from traditional media outlets. Plenty of people I knew were enthusiastic about new media like A.M. Talk Radio and eventually Fox News Channel.

I have tuned in to such outlets on many occasions over the years because I have felt that it was important to know what sizeable segments of the population were listening to in order to help shape their opinions. I always try to be open-minded, but was frequently demoralized when listening to such programs. They typically provided little in the way of news. Few facts were provided. And when facts were provided, there was often little or no attempt to be objective. There seemed to be a lot of whining about certain facts.

I suppose the people who produced such programming felt that the traditional media was biased and that justified their own biases. The difference seemed to be the amount and transparency of bias. If the traditional media was subtly biased, these new conservative media were explicitly biased and often did not hold any pretense of being objective. But such media degrade to gripe fests and the indulgence of like minded people giving each other verbal high-fives. Listeners are exposed to opinion, but little to no new facts.

The left then responded with their own explicitly biased media. We had Air America, which didn’t last long. MSNBC has emerged. Oddly, Comedy Central has become a news media outlet for some with their Daily Show and Colbert Report programs. More recently Current TV has come into existence. It has received more attention as Keith Olbermann has signed on to host his show on that channel.

Such explicitly liberal news programs are more palatable to me than their conservative counterparts, but just barely so. I am repulsed by the jump-on-the-bandwagon, bash-your-opponent mentality. The other side is always wrong and vilified. Let’s get angry and yell about our opponents for hours on end. Alternately, let us point out how stupid, arrogant or corrupt the other side is, then we’ll ridicule them mercilessly.

Whether conservative or liberal, such programming is a waste of time in my opinion. We only have so many hours in the day. If we opt to tune in to such programming, we likely are not making time to read articles or listen to programs with a more objective approach and with a greater focus on providing information. This sorry state of American journalism is dumbing down our political debates. We make up our minds without a lot of factual information. We often just parrot whatever our favorite pundit has publicly opined. Truly, that is a tragic, worrisome state of affairs. It makes me pessimistic about the future of our republic.

Mark 4:24 (Amplified Bible)

And He said to them, Be careful what you are hearing. The measure [of thought and study] you give [to the truth you hear] will be the measure [of virtue and knowledge] that comes back to you--and more [besides] will be given to you who hear.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Life Lessons About Appearances & Perceptions)

In addition to reflecting on the futility of seeking power, in watching this documentary I was also struck by the futility of worrying about appearances and the opinions of others. I have no idea if the allegations in the film were true that in his final days Mr. Atwater told many that he was a frequent reader of the Bible, but never actually took his own Bible out of the cellophane. For the sake of argument, just assuming those allegations were true, that alleged hypocrisy is instructive and worth reflection.

Maybe the rest of us are not facing a terminal illness while under media scrutiny and worrying about public perceptions of us as we head into eternity. But that does not mean we are immune from the same type of pointless vanities that were alleged in the documentary. Such concerns are just on a smaller scale for most of us.

It seems to be human nature that we worry about what others think of us. Am I liked? Am I popular? Am I respected? From an early age, we are preoccupied with such things. But if we step back, we realize how silly and what a waste of time such trivialities are. It can make us feel good to be liked or to have others think well of us. Alternately, it can make us feel sad to be rejected or disrespected. But at the end of the day, how other people perceive us and what they think of us are really irrelevant.

Imagine that it is true that Mr. Atwater was more concerned that other people thought he had found God, but was not interested in actually finding God for himself. How tragic would that have been? As one is heading into eternity, it could not be less important what other humans think of us. What really matters is what God thinks. How sad it would be to spend one’s final hours on this planet cultivating public and private opinions instead of preparing for eternity with God. What a tragic waste. What a colossal juxtaposition of priorities.

If most people believe something about an individual—whether it is a positive or negative belief—it does not alter reality. Even if large numbers of Americans thought Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that would not make it true.

And particular gauges (e.g., class rankings, employment reviews, US News & World Reports rankings, etc.) are not always reflective of the reality that many believe. A student who ends up with the lowest score in a class is not necessarily someone who is lacking in skill or knowledge. Such a person may have mastered the course material quite well, but is forced by a mandatory grade curve to get a sub-par grade because others did relatively better on an exam.

If a person graduates second in her class from a third tier school and goes to work at a company in the Fortune 100, who really cares? In reality, those are pointless labels that simply reflect various elitisms and petty pecking orders. Such things always strike me as incongruous in a nation built on democratic values.

I would never dispute that that others’ beliefs and those types of gauges can have a huge influence on the decisions that people make. And some of those decisions have huge economic repercussions. Such perceptions can determine which house a person buys, which candidate gets a job offer, and which employee gets a raise, among other things. As a result, it is important for economic self-preservation to be aware of such economically important perceptions and to do one’s best to make sure perceptions are positive when they are associated with you.

But when economic repercussions are not at stake, we should realize that others’ opinions of us are just not important. If others don’t like you or think ill of you, who cares? Each of us should strive to be the best person we can be, but if others don’t appreciate who we are, tough cookies. As I have gotten older, I’ve realized that more and more. It is freeing to have that epiphany. I feel very fortunate to not be in my teens or twenties anymore!

Even when there are economic repercussions of others’ opinions, we should not become consumed with what others believe about us. We don’t have complete control over what others will think of us. Everyone has baggage. People may make judgments or prejudgments that negatively impact us and over which we have no control whatsoever. If one obsesses over what one cannot control, one will be unhappy and waste a lot of time.

We should never lose sight of the fact that perceptions are not necessarily reflective of reality. We should not buy into labels that ultimately are just words and may be quite different from whatever lies beneath. As Christians, we should always seek the truth and recognize that some will try to deceive us. Truth is not always easy to discern. It can take effort and time. Labels are easier. But that does not always make them true.

Proverbs 8:13

All who fear the Lord will hate evil. Therefore, I hate pride and arrogance, corruption and perverse speech.

Luke 6:22

What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you as evil because you follow the Son of Man.

1 John 3:18

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.

1 John 4:18

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story (2008) (Life Lessons About Power)

At the end of the day, this film taught me more about what people thought about Lee Atwater than what Mr. Atwater actually believed or experienced. I’m still not sure what his core values or beliefs (if any) were. But maybe that doesn’t matter. I still came away from the film with several lessons that may or may not have been particularly applicable to Mr. Atwater’s personal experience, but are nonetheless important truths for any of us.

First, I was struck by the futility of seeking power. Mr. Atwater lived his life in a profession focused on seeking to amass power. I’ve never found that appealing. As I’ve already mentioned in a prior blog post, I discerned early on that I’d not be a good fit for politics. I do not make a living by getting others elected and I have never run for any public office. Indeed most of us don’t do those things. But that doesn’t mean that we are immune from the thirst for power that allegedly consumed Mr. Atwater and tempted him to do unscrupulous things. We should not sit on our high horses and look down our nose at his choices.

Mr. Atwater’s quest for power was on a huge scale most of us cannot even fully image. But the rest of us face similar temptations on much more modest scales. Maybe it involves the possibility of stabbing a co-worker in the back to curry favor of a boss or management. Maybe it involves trying to get on a particular committee of a church or HOA to make important decisions for the community. Maybe it involves an intra-family power struggle to be the one to make decisions for the family or for a loved one. Just because we are not strolling the corridors of power in the capital of the free world does not mean that we are immune from the seductive attraction of power.

As humans, we want to be in control. It seems innate. We want to control our children’s decisions, our career trajectory, the remote control, and what we have for dinner. But the truth is, we have limited control over most things. We may work hard as parents and employees. But at the end of the day our kids will have opportunities to make decisions when we won’t be around to have any direct influence. And bosses and clients will have a lot of influence over our career and they are going to be guided by some factors beyond our control. We cannot control the weather, how long we’ll be in traffic on Monday or even the people with whom we will work. It is part of the human condition that we need to learn to accept that we have limited control in many important parts of our lives. Ultimately, God is in control and we have to learn to trust his plan.

And as Christians, we are called to love God and our brothers and sisters. As many theologians have noted, love and power are not equivalent. Indeed, one might assert they are mutually exclusive concepts. Choosing to love means a loss of control and a loss of power. Those who love are particularly vulnerable. That comes with the territory.

Watching this documentary about Lee Atwater was a good reminder to me about the futility of seeking power. That is a reminder we all need, even if we live far from the Beltway and are not involved in politics.

1 John 2:15

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you.

1 John 4:16

We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.