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Q: Do the media intentionally lie to create drama?

A TV with the word LIES Credit: Ged Carroll (Creative Commons)
Credit: Ged Carroll (Creative Commons)

A:

Let’s start by breaking down that question. What is the media? That term is so broad, it includes news organizations, entertainment companies, and social media influencers. 

We recently learned the definition of news: Timely information of some public interest that has been verified and shared by a journalist or news outlet that is independent and accountable. Reputable news organizations, whose businesses are built upon verifying information and informing the public, do not intentionally lie to create drama. 

However, there are many other types of media companies and individuals with varying goals that do publish false information to create drama. One of the most famous cases was in 1938 when actor and filmmaker Orson Welles broadcast an adaption of “War of the Worlds” on CBS radio. It depicted an alien invasion of New Jersey as told through news bulletins. Many people mistook it as a real news broadcast. 

Nowadays, propagandists publish stories and social media content that are outright false. It’s a big business that can bring in huge profits, regardless of the intent. Here’s an article about one such “fake news” entrepreneur who says he was writing fake stories that “fit into existing right-wing conspiracy theories” to shed light on that extremism. It’s not clear how he would accomplish that goal and in the meantime, he was making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month from ads on his faux news websites.

The reality of our information eco-system is that there are daily cases, nefarious and benign, of published lies to create drama. 

But drama isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although journalists and news organizations work exclusively with verified facts, they can still benefit from a little drama. Everyone is trying to drive traffic, and more people will read a dramatic headline than a boring one. Take for example a story about two jet airliners clipping their wings on a runway at Newark. No one was hurt, but the airplanes were badly damaged. Both of these headlines are true, but which would grab your attention?

  • No one hurt in Newark runway incident 
  • Jet Planes Crash on Newark Runway 

The second is far more dramatic. It also could imply a more serious accident than actually occurred, even though it is technically correct (the planes did crash, but just their wings and no one was hurt).

So news organizations do wield drama, but not lies, to compete for readers in a landscape where the public is so bombarded with media that it is increasingly difficult to stand out.