As a novelist, I understand the benefit of creating conflict. Conflict between individuals makes a story exciting. Conflicting objectives can create suspense. Conflicts of values can build emotions. Every successful novel weaves a number of conflicts into an appealing tale that people pay good money to read for entertainment. But should the news media use the same techniques to grow reader or viewership audiences?
This is a question I increasingly ask. First, let me say this is not a “fake news” blog or an article to attack the news media. In principle, I think most news media outlets try to report news stories accurately in an increasingly demanding world. I cringe every time I hear a politician blame a circumstance on the media or use denigrating terms to dismiss or demean the news media.
But, as a writer, I often dissect stories to identify how the piece was structured by the wordsmiths who write and edit the news we read, hear, or watch. And, it’s clear most outlets use the novelist’s technique of creating conflict to make their stories more exciting.
Take the subject of climate change, for example. For more than a decade, the global scientific community has produced a plethora of data and evidence to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that people are creating excessive carbon dioxide which is causing the earth to warm unacceptably fast. Yet, most media stories still work in oblique references to create conflict like “critics of the study say…” or “industry leaders maintain …” or “some experts doubt…”
Now, I understand a media’s desire to remain neutral and present both sides of an opposing argument, but if the “critics” are clearly criticizing because they ‘believe’ something different without compelling evidence, should the media report their position? If ‘industry leaders’ clearly have a clear financial interest in their position, is media reporting their position for any other purpose than creating conflict? And if ‘experts’ are quoted without the media establishing the credentials of a self-proclaimed expert in the article, should we think the media has any objective other than creating conflict?
Look too at the attention given daily to outright lies repeatedly uttered by the president of the United States. When a media outlet knows a politician is making a demonstrably false statement, why report it? What purpose is served other than creation of a conflict where it will then become necessary for someone to counter the false statement and become the opposition in a conflict?
News media might argue a need for balance, and when there are merely opposing points of view, I would agree. But facts are facts. If a statement is factually incorrect, it’s not a point of view, it’s a lie. And why would any news outlet knowingly publish a lie if not to create conflict and controversy?
There are occasions when news media outlets must take a stand to retain their credibility. One of those is the current climate crisis. Science tells us this subject is existential. Humankind’s very future depends on how quickly we can stabilize rising temperatures. In my view, news media outlets would much better serve their audience and humanity by eliminating the conflict of ideology from stories and focus on the only real conflict – people vs. carbon dioxide.
Equally, I think the news media would much better serve its audience and the promotion of civil discourse by simply ignoring comments made by politicians who are serial liars or who seek to destroy accepted values with innuendo or demonstrably false accusations.
The news media around the world has many challenges and is under immense pressure. But I think elimination of the “create a conflict” strategy would be a great place to start rehabilitating its image and winning back its audience. Now that’s my point of view. What’s yours?
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