When headlines divide

How sensationalized and fake news widens the perceived split between Canada and the U.S.

It’s been a year since Donald Trump was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 2017, as President of the United States of America—although after the continuous barrage of coverage on his every tweet and abrasive comment, it really feels more like fifty.

At this point, each breaking scandal becomes old news just as the first editorialized thought pieces begin to hit the presses. Some time in the last year, the North American public became accustomed to a new normal, and with an increased tolerance for divisive international upset on the daily.

Although he may certainly be the most blatant, Trump is not the sole agent in the evolving culture of political media in the last year.

Polarization, fake news, and media bias aren’t new, but their prevalence and perpetuation have rapidly increased. They have defined Trump’s election and administration, and they are something that both consumers and the media have been complicit in.

Throughout all of this frenzy, Canada hasn’t simply been a casual observer. As a dual citizen who moved from the United States to Canada on the eve of the 2016 election, I’ve witnessed this transformation on both sides of the 49th parallel, and it’s more similar than either country is probably willing to admit.

Although Canadians frequently draw pride from using the perceived shortcomings of their neighbour to the south as a comparative metric, this often distracts from a deeper discussion or more complex self-evaluation of issues here in Canada. Many of the same political and social elements Canadians love to anecdotally dismiss about the United States exist within their own country, including polarized extremism or “alternative fact” media as found in groups like the Soldiers of Odin and Rebel Media.

Most Americans would be hard-pressed to name more than two provinces,  but that doesn’t stop them from having an enormous influence on their neighbour to the north.

So how has an appetite for digestible, entertaining, and polarized information culminated in American political news integration into the cultural knowledge of most Canadians? And above all, how is Canada harmed by allowing its sense of self be defined in terms of its perceptions of the United States.

***

Andrea Macko is the Editor-in-Chief of the Greenville Pioneer, a paper operating out of a rural county in upstate New York where 61.2 per cent of the voting public cast their ballot in favour of Donald Trump in November of 2016.

To Macko, media coverage surrounding the 2016 American election is indicative of a collective journalistic fixation on more outrageous and extreme opinions — particularly those of then-nominee Donald Trump.

“One of the best memes I saw during the election was Trump, and somebody photoshopped him in front of just a random wall and it said something at the top to the effect of, ‘You don’t think I can get Mexico to pay for the wall? I got the media to pay for my campaign,’” says Macko.

“If you think about that, he did—he absolutely did, by being as outrageous and ridiculous as he was with certain things, it drew attention. Even the left media can be to blame for that, because they still covered him, they still gave him the attention.”

According to the New York Times, Trump earned just shy of $2-billion USD worth of free media coverage over the course of his campaign which is, “about twice” the total cost of the most expensive presidential campaign previously recorded. In comparison, Hillary Clinton was estimated to have received the equivalent of $746 million USD, less than half the amount of free media as Trump.

“When people start reporting news in such a way [that] you want to lead them to a certain way of thinking, that’s a problem, and that’s what a lot of media outlets especially after Trump have done,” says Macko. “I think the hatred of him in the country today is feeding that with some of the press, because they want the ratings, they want to be associated with being a hero of a certain group or the trusted source of what they recognize as a majority of people. Basically, they’re taking sides; there’s a problem there.”

In the divisive atmosphere of today’s news coverage, sensationalized or clickbait journalism can often take stylistic precedence.

“I’m very careful about sensationalizing anything, but I’m in the minority there,” says Bill Stroh, a broadcast news producer for CBS 6 in Albany, New York. “I would say that in many places, local stations have got to the point where they’re trying to grab onto ever-declining ratings by sensationalizing, by capitalizing on something that may be, in my view, eye candy or salacious or controversial.”

—————
“It’s kind of distressing to see that two-thirds of Americans are getting their news primarily from social media — it’s deeply concerning.”
—————

By relying predominantly on simplified or sensationalized headlines to convey complex issues, Stefan Jonsson, Director of Communications for the BC Green Party, believes many people have developed a predisposition for easy answers.

“I think that the more news or information we consume, but just the headline-level news, the more we want quick answers and quick fixes to things,” says Jonsson. “The reality is the real world does not change on quick fixes.”

Unsurprisingly, the internet plays a part in the need for fast solutions. According to Stroh, the problem is choice — people choosing what they /want/ to read, rather than what is correct or objective.

“Unlike [just] the daily paper and the nightly news, you now have hundreds of places from which you can get news,” Stroh says. “However, people who gravitate towards a certain idea or ideology will tend to stick to those sites [that already align] with their thinking.”

In September 2017, the Pew Research Centre reported that 67 per cent of Americans get at least some of their news from social media. The same study found that 45 per cent of American adults get their news primarily from Facebook, which has been particularly criticized among algorithm-based social media platforms for the perpetuation of media bubbles and fake news.

“A lot of the social [media] platforms, if not all of them, have experienced inaccurate, untrue news that people take at face value,” says Stroh. “If you look at news as a way to inform how you look at life and inform how you make decisions about your life, it’s kind of distressing to see that two-thirds of Americans are getting their news primarily from social media — it’s deeply concerning. It’s now an integral part of the way we disseminate news.”

Much of the criticism about the propagation of fake news on Facebook has been levelled at the platform itself, but media bubbles (closed-off circles of interaction between like-minded users) aren’t caused solely by algorithmic programing. Max Kuivenhoven, a second-year philosophy major who came to UVic from Texas in the fall of 2016, attests that sometimes these bubbles can be formed from a self-imposed lack of exposure to differing opinions.

“Opinions that I dislike, I’ll end up kinda turning them off, or not following that person on Facebook anymore,” Kuivenhoven says. “It really does become like you start to only see stuff that you agree with, and then it’s like you’re just right no matter what your opinion is.”

Kuivenhoven notes that people find it easier to identify with other like-minded, strong opinions than to pursue more complex, factual arguments.

“That’s the big, big challenge for people that want to be informed is to inform themselves and kind of like dig through stuff and actually get to the heart of the information and get sources that give objective points of view,” Kuivenhoven says. “It’s so much easier to consume an opinion, even if it’s a slight opinion, slight bias . . . that just means one less step that you have to do in your mind to make your [own] opinion.

“It’s become like a combat between . . . the easily digestible stuff and the people who actually have knowledge about it, trying to combat that. But it’s almost impossible for them to do it, because no matter what they do, they’re gonna be fighting against what people want and not what people need.”

Though the wider public’s decisions to isolate themselves from more nuanced discourse seem insignificant, polarization has become ingrained in North American society. This othering has implications for Canadians, whose preoccupation with American politics encourages an oversimplified, othering perspective that is similar to views of opposing political parties within the U.S.

Kuivenhoven explains that when discussing contentious topics like how to handle white nationalist groups or laws around immigration, Canadians will often only look at instances of American extremism rather than the views being espoused in their own country. It doesn’t matter if the issue is a domestic one, Kuivenhoven says; Canadians often can’t help but talk about the U.S.

—————
“It’s like, how can any little issue in B.C. be brought up when there’s crazy stuff happening down [in the U.S.]?” he says.
“It’s just better news.”
—————

***

Although differences between Americans and Canadians in some areas can be defined by little more than the figurative line in the sand, the echoes of American political news go from deafening to droll upon crossing the border into Canada.

“When I’m back home, it’s like everyone’s got these strong opinions, it seems like it’s really kinda pressing against you, like you’re in a war,” says the Texan Kuivenhoven. “Here it’s like I’m watching a TV show—so it’s kinda fun. I like it.”

Katie DeRosa, a reporter for the Times Colonist, agrees about the sensationalized perspective many Canadians have of U.S. news. “I do think Canadians almost like to consume Trump news as a form of entertainment,” DeRosa says. “Almost with a bit of smugness.”

However, this sensationalism of American news often overshadows local issues in the Canadian media.

Kuivenhoven likens Canadian news to hearing abouta friend’s breakup. The American counterpart, he says, is more like being called by a twin sister in Cambodia to hear her talk about committing arson and doing cocaine.

“It’s like, how can any little issue in B.C. be brought up when there’s crazy stuff happening down [in the U.S.]?” he says. “It’s just better news.”

While people may agree that news from the U.S. is inherently more interesting, this has shown to have damaging repercussions on the Canadian understanding of domestic politics.

“Generally speaking, because we get so much information from the U.S., Canadians often start to think about things in Canada in U.S. terms,” says the BC Green Party’s Stefan Jonsson. “It affects the way we think about and understand our own country.”

The Canadian media, Jonsson explains, is complicit in the cultural prominence of American news. He notes this lack of due diligence was evident in the Canadian political coverage in 2008, when both the United States and Canada held federal elections.

“My experience at that time was being so disappointed in the Canadian media and the Canadian public in general for being so much more interested in the American election than in the Canadian election,” says Jonsson. “Certainly [the U.S. election] would have huge implications indirectly and over a long period of time, but in my perspective, the Canadian election was exponentially more important to our lives as Canadians, and the media did not reflect that at all.”

However, the inevitability of American news encroaching on a Canadian audience is compulsory to an extent, as DeRosa points out.

“The issues that happen in the U.S. are inextricably linked to Canada,” states DeRosa. “I think it would be ignorant not to be following what’s going on in the United States.”

But in keeping up with the onslaught of opposing narratives internationally, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. “It’s such a turn-off — the whole system. Everything that’s been happening in the United States. In Canada as well, but largely in the U.S.,” Jonsson says. “It makes me question whether I even want to keep reading the news.”

Media desensitization can be dangerous for Canadians, as American news not only distracts from domestic issues, but also hinders Canadian self-analysis independent of American perspectives.

“The only way that democracy really works is if we actually are tuned in, because change in democracy only happens when we make the change happen,” said Jonsson. “If people are turning off politics, they’re likely turning off democracy too, and that’s really, really disconcerting for me.”

***

Trump’s presidency is a year deep, but Canada’s fixation on American news only continues to grow. It’s no wonder Canada has cultivated a superiority complex dependent on differentiating itself from the United States.

“I think it’s hard to look at ourselves,” says Jonsson. “It’s much easier to look at how terrible someone else is.”

Without establishing an identity separate from the perspective of an over-simplified American caricature, Canada can not successfully evaluate itself within the context of its own nuances. It’s simply not an accurate reflection.

But DeRosa observes that a deeper critical analysis from the Canadian press could actually be achievable by embracing a reporting style similar to that of the U.S.

“If anything, the Trump presidency has pushed mainstream media to do better and more in-depth investigations in order to cut through some of the lies and cut through the spin, and really push them to do some excellent investigative work,” states DeRosa.

“We shouldn’t hold ourselves up as if we’re this perfect place because we have the same fracturization as the United States. It’s just a little bit [more] muted at the time,” she continues. “I think the [Canadian] media needs to be as engaged as the U.S. media is in covering Trump and anti-immigration policies . . . [but] about our own policies.”

Going forward, CBS 6’s Bill Stroh argues that everyone benefits from news organizations striving to raise the bar for journalistic integrity.

“The challenge to the mainstream media — the New York Times, the network news — is to up your game, do your reporting properly,” Stroh says.

“Don’t try to be first, but try to be right.”

 

Leave a Reply