Excerpts from Veils of Distortion: How The News Media Warps Our Minds written by John Zada
Much smoke has been seen, and caused great fear of fire–even when no fire ensued. – Middle Eastern proverb
Around the time I signed up for my first television news writing job over a decade ago with the newly launched CBC News Network in Toronto, I started noticing a trend across society: people were tuning out of news coverage in droves. Every time I met someone new and the subject of my job came up they would tell me matter-of-factly that they recently made the decision to stop consuming news. “Oh, I don’t watch the news anymore. It’s way too gloomy,” one person said. “The news media instills fear and hatred in us,” quipped another. People were often tired, or fed up, with the negativity and pessimism of news coverage and felt that ‘the world’ the news was portraying didn’t equate with their living experience of it. Others told me they felt emotionally manipulated for ratings, subscriptions and clicks to the point where their wellness was being negatively impacted. Some even held the deep conviction that the news stoked, or amplified, the chaos in the world. Those sentiments reached a crescendo during the COVID-19 pandemic, when news operations went into full-throttle to churn out as many daunting stories as they could on a daily basis without taking stock of the consequences for society. To safeguard their already strained mental and physical health, nearly everyone I know made a calculated decision to largely tune out of the unrelenting coverage.
Whatever our exact opinions, many of us feel that news cycles in the West, especially in North America, have turned into spectacles of imbecility. News organizations, which have seen their advertising revenue streams reduced to a trickle by the internet, have doubled-down in their pursuit of emotive sensation with the desperation of a drowning person grasping for a life raft. This tireless attempt to win and hold audiences resorts to the same old methods which have sent so many news consumers packing in the first place. Donald Trump was brought front-and-centre in this effort; indeed, the phenomenon of his coming to power in the first place is not inextricable from the calculating and excessive media coverage of his belly flop into politics in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. election.
But the madness gripping the news media goes beyond Trump’s erstwhile presidency. Every contentious issue and debate is now seized upon—whether about politics, race, identity, or gender—and thrown into a coliseum where its partisans brawl like professional wrestlers in front of cheering and jeering audiences who later continue those battles online, and sometimes on the street. The elevation of local crime stories, celebrity scandals and social media tiffs to dramas of national and international importance also figures in this new campaign to agitate and entertain the masses. Hardly a day goes by when we aren’t blindsided by stories so bizarre and unlikely, so irresistibly morbid at times, that truth and fiction seem to swap positions like magnetic poles that have flipped
There seems to be no end to these circus shows offered up by a once more respectable profession now co-opted into the entertainment industrial complex to such a degree that it has become a surreal parody of itself. The problem is not that these reported events aren’t happening—they are. We live in a strange world that is undergoing greater and more rapid change than at any other time in recorded history, and in which nearly anything that happens can be documented by ad-hoc citizen reporters. But what we don’t learn from the news—because its doyens either won’t tell us, or can’t because they don’t realize it—is that the events it covers tend to be outliers: they are exceptions and not the rule. The choice of stories and the extent of the coverage and significance attributed to them are not reflective of most of our day-to-day experiences. By featuring them as they do, the news creates a distorted picture of our reality. Ironically, by implying that the world they depict is the world we physically inhabit every day, the news threatens to catalyze a self-fulfilling prophecy by way of our manipulated reactions. By defining reality, even inadvertently, they can thereby alter it.
This, I suspect, is part of the reason why so many people have tuned the news out: most of us want no part in this make-believe charade.
The recurring feedback I’ve received from friends, family and strangers (and in exceptionally rare cases, work colleagues), combined with my own up-close observations and realizations about the news business, has prompted me to try to explain the less visible components of media distortion from a bigger picture perspective. The compulsion to do so is compounded by an unsettling silence from within the industry. With the exception of a handful of journalists (some of whom I quote here), very few people working in the business share their experiences with the public—even after retiring from their jobs or switching careers. News bosses almost never solicit big picture feedback—of the kind I include in this work—from their staff. One of the most important discussions of our age, rivalling in significance any issue that the news might cover, is not taking place. What is this strange creature we call ‘the news’? And how many of our societal ills are created, and made worse, by it?
In this book I use general terms like ‘news media,’ ‘news industry’ and ‘the news’ to describe a wider industry bound by a common work culture, practices and goals. At the same time, I do not mean to imply a monolithic entity. News organizations are made up of different people who vary in talent, motivation, integrity, vision and quality of work. This book is not about the faults of any particular individuals, not an anarchist-style rant from a disenchanted news hack, not a conspiracy-minded manifesto, and certainly not a call to end all news. Nor does it reflect any political or ideological slant—the practises described here operate across partisan divides.
Instead, it’s about an industry’s work culture and its relationship to the wider societal culture which it both reflects and impacts, looked at through sociological, psychological and anthropological lenses. The book draws more upon my experiences and observations working in cable TV news, but also addresses to a lesser extent other media as well: print, online and radio news—all of which are converging in the digital realm. Veils of Distortion is an attempt to shed light on the systemic automation of human beings at the heart of the contemporary news machine in order to help us better understand how news is produced, the prisms and filters that distort it, and how it affects us, so that we’re not helpless pawns; and so that we don’t feel we have to disconnect from it completely and thereby throw-out the baby with the bathwater, as many people have done.I strongly believe that we have to understand how falsehood manifests in the mainstream news media—before it undermines individuals and societies irrevocably.