There was a shooting two days ago in the same building at UCLA that I taught a few classes in. Over the last year I met a number of engineering, computer science and biology students looking to add statistics to their skill set. I couldn’t work on Wednesday. I was too busy texting friends to see if they were on campus and safe. Thankfully all of my friends are safe, but I know there are people in the UCLA community who cannot say the same. After any mass shooting we see various editorials and thinkpieces. To quote a Los Angeles Times staff editorial posted an hour after police gave the all clear sign:
“In this case, it was only two dead. Murder-suicide in a small office. And so America shrugs. Just another violent incident in the daily parade of gun violence that defines contemporary America.”
This shooting was much closer to home. It turns out the shooter was a former graduate student with a grievance against his professor. Teach enough students and you will run in to someone who is neurotic and absolutely refuses to take responsibility for their failures. Six months ago a student told me she turned in a homework assignment but got a zero because my teaching assistant missed it. I grabbed my phone, emailed my TA, and said I would get back to the student. Problem not solved. This student kept insisting she did the assignment. It didn’t matter how many times I said “we’ll check.” This student followed me out of the office and through the quad, continuing to insist she did that assignment. I think the only reason she stopped following me was because she recognized we were walking to the main administration building! She never did that homework, of course. Her final had explicitly racist answers. Good thing she was unarmed.
I wouldn’t say I am completely back to normal after the shooting. On the other hand, most of the performances around the shooting feel very familiar. Newspapers have played the LA Times’ role condemning gun violence before. Progressives have criticized the National Rifle Association before. If everyone fills their part of the script, we will see he main spokesman for the NRA come out in a few days and say this tragedy could be prevented if more people were carrying guns (as if that would pre-empt the initial shooting.) The LA Times editorial staff concedes that the nation accepts gun violence as “commonplace” and “that society will just shrug this off is tragic in its own way.” How did we get to the point where a leading newspaper would openly concede that their editorials are unlikely to sway the public?
The last time I remember so many people asking “why can’t the media blow the whistle about something outrageous” was in November. Donald Trump tweeted out a graphic from the “Crime Statistic Bureau” in San Francisco claiming that most White murder victims were killed by Blacks. However, the “Crime Statistic Bureau” does not exist. FBI statistics show most Whites are killed by other Whites. Reporters traced the graphic back to a self-identified neo-Nazi. Could reporters call Trump a liar? A racist? What would it take for reporters to “blow the whistle” and get people’s attention? I changed my lecture last minute to try and address this question, and tried addressing it in more detail the next week. After the shooting at UCLA, I thought it would be a good time to dust off my notes and try to explain why it is so hard to shake people in to believing something is serious and needs attention.
Media Setting Priorities?
A generation ago Walter Cronkite famously turned against the Vietnam War. (Cronkite’s own short retrospective on this is also worth watching.) Many historians think that Cronkite – a journalist – took the single most important step to sway public opinion on the war. Cronkite was famously stoic and detached as an anchor, even when describing how President Kennedy was shot and killed. I showed this clip in class once, then asked my students if they could or would take the same tone if they had to announce President Obama had been shot. Most said no. I imagine if we go back 50 years, most people would say no as well. Cronkite’s stoic detachment was part of what made him so trusted. He came off like a neutral arbitrator of what is important. Cronkite breaking character when condemning the Vietnam War showed an intensity and importance that went beyond day-to-day news coverage.
Walter Cronkite was famous and well-respected, but his journalistic standards weren’t that different from other journalists of his era. Nightly network news was seen as a public service. It was a requirement to keep a broadcast license. Edward Epstein wrote in his 1793 book News From Nowhere that the NBC executives he studied didn’t think about maximizing the audience or potential profits – they incorrectly assumed broadcast news could never turn a profit. Since national journalists of the 1960s and early 70s thought their job was entirely about public service, they didn’t care too much about audience preferences. Journalists thought it was up to them to educate the public and tell them what they should be caring about. If the nightly news could only contain 15 stories, then journalists would give you a list of the 15 most important stories they found that day. Major events like California’s upcoming primary election could get multiple slots in the top 15 to show even greater importance than just getting the #1 slot.
Media organizations play some of this filtering role today. Every media organization looks through a huge set of events happening in the world and pulls out a smaller set of things to write about. I go through that process myself as a small time blogger. We need this specialization and division of labor because we only have so much memory and so much time. It is impossible for us to be fully aware of everything that is going on in the world. Everyone produces their top 15 stories of the day, or top 30, or maybe their single story of the week if they write part-time.
The difference is today we have a much wider range of top 15 story lists to choose from. Audiences can comparison shop. If you want someone who feels as outraged as you about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, some partisan media site will fill the “ragehole” for you. If you want minute details about state-by-state primary rules and how they affected the election, there is a site for you. If you want a little update on the presidential election but don’t want it to gobble up 5 of the top 15 story slots, local newspapers and local television broadcasts will screen out the obligatory daily campaign updates.
Walter Cronkite didn’t have to think about creating a brand specializing in national news. Newspapers were regional. There were only three television networks, and they all broadcast similar types of news at similar times. Nightly news could ignore the audience’s preferences because there was minimal competition. Cronkite’s successors at CBS, along with reporters at national newspapers like the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, have to cater to a specific audience. People who want to read about national politics on a regular basis tend to have strong political opinions. One of the main ways that older media organizations have tried to keep this audience is by treating single statements as enough for a full news story – as long as what the politician said would outrage part of the audience. These stories are very easy to write. It’s a cost-effective way to give the core group of politics readers the feeling of being immersed in a campaign.
Sharing Is Caring…too Much?
How did you reach this blog post? Did you type the name of my website in to your browser? Set up an RSS feed? Chances are you came across a link via Facebook or Twitter, or maybe a Google search. That’s more and more common these days. One recent study indicated a majority of Americans get their news from Facebook instead of directly visiting media websites or watching / reading offline content. Of course not everyone is on Facebook, and many Facebook users have no interest in politics. Think about your friends and family who are the most actively posting about politics on Facebook. Are they a little…different than the other people in your feed?
If you can’t imagine one of your friends or family members constantly yelling at the computer screen as they click “share link” you are lucky. Most of us have a range of anger. Some things don’t bother us at all, some are just a little annoying. There are only a few things that would get me screaming – like seeing the news that a UCLA student shot their former professor. You won’t see me post the minor squabbles I have. I make the conscious decision that many things are not worth writing a short Facebook post about. It’s definitely not worth your time to read me talking about minor annoyances. Most of us have some kind of filter. But we also know people who will post every grievance they have about the political process or one of the candidates in this election. When I see someone who posts how they are angry about something in politics or culture most days of the week, it makes me think of one of my favorite lines from TV’s Justified:
Raylan Givens: It’s all somebody else’s fault. You ever hear the saying “you run in to an asshole in the morning, you ran in to an asshole. You run in to assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”
Social media caters to people who want to spend their time confirming their political views and demonizing the opposition. How could you search for people who feel the same way you do about Donald Trump without social media? It’s going to be a lot harder. Any in-person rally or protest will be limited by geography. Sites like Facebook and Twitter quickly realized their biggest comparative advantage is the ability to let users find other users who share a common interest, even if they have nothing else in common. Hashtags, suggested friends and search features made this possible for the first time. These sites also use algorithms to promote posts that have already gotten a large number of likes and comments. Facebook is very proactive in hiding posts that do not get engagement. And Facebook’s experiments have shown people engage more with emotional posts than neutral ones. When we put this all together, angry Facebook posts will get more visibility and engagement than anyone inspired by Walter Cronkite.
Because sites that produce some kind of political media content are increasingly dependent on Facebook users sharing links, they are increasingly dependent on the emotional content that elicits engagement on Facebook. Sharing drives web traffic. This media ecosystem is great at signaling who is angry about what. Even traditional media sites are embracing “who is angry about what” as a common story trope for national politics. It’s not an entirely flawed system. People who would get ignored in Cronkite’s generation have an opportunity to share their views now.
The main problem is every company involved in political media has an incentive to cater to the people who cry “wolf” over every offense, regardless of its seriousness. Every post playing up how offensive something is will attract some of the audience that is looking for something to yell about today. It’s a great way to maximize your page views among the core audience for day-to-day political stories. But this media ecosystem is what enables someone like Donald Trump to get a record amount of media attention. Even before Trump ran I predicted that a candidate could monopolize media attention by filling the “ragehole” – the core political audience’s demand for daily outrage.
Most people want to reserve the media’s outrage alarm for something serious like Wednesday’s shootings at UCLA. (Remember that for all the attention Trump is getting, most Americans do not vote in presidential primaries.) When I read the LA Times staff editorial, I saw the voice of a media organization that knew what most people needed…and that they could never fulfill this need. After a decade of giving the niche politics audience what they want to maximize page views, they knew their opinion wouldn’t stand out from just another hot take on gun control once it gets to our Facebook feed.
There is one important silver lining in my analysis. It’s something that my students taught me. We don’t need to rely on media organizations to change in order to solve this quagmire. We don’t need Facebook to tinker with their algorithms again or get off Facebook altogether because algorithms are evil. All we need to do is stop liking and commenting on everything that gets us a little riled up about politics. Watching those friends and family members who do nothing but rant about politics is a lot like watching a car crash. I know we all tend to stop and stare at accidents – and that causes a traffic jam on the other side of the highway. People who use social media to wage a daily battle are getting in accidents. They are causing a traffic jam for the rest of us who want a different kind of media coverage. We can all do our part to avoid these accidents by showing some restraint. My 19-23 year old students had already learned this.