There are two sides to every news story. The one that your favorite media outlet prefers, and the other side, which is the one that they will mislead you about. Or, so it often turns out. This is unfortunate. Media institutions play an outsized role in the life and health of communities and nations, and their abandonment of ethical principles causes untold harm.
In this article—the second in a series on manipulation, including also a previous article on interpersonal manipulation and a future article on political manipulation—we will explore ten ways media outlets and media personalities manipulate their audiences. Remember that there is a difference in persuasion and manipulation. Whereas persuasion is an overt and positive attempt to change minds or actions, manipulation is a covert and negative attempt to control minds and actions.
How do media outlets and personalities seek to manipulate their audiences? They do it by:
- Preying on Emotional Vulnerability. Media outlets know that three human emotions—anger, fear, and lust—drive readers back to webpages, viewers back to TV shows, and listeners back to radio programs. Media outlets desperately want to expand their audiences so that advertisers will pay more of a premium. It’s all about the bottom line. Just take a look at many media outlets today. Only the most dim-witted person could fail to recognize that these outlets pour gasoline on the fire of civil unrest by stoking anger and fear; yet, it sometimes goes unnoticed that they also offer a smattering of soft porn articles to appeal to our lust (e.g. “So-and-So Celebrity Sports New Bikini While on Vacation with So-and-So Celebrity Lover at So-and-So Resort).
- Printing “News” That Isn’t News. Media outlets often print articles that are essentially “opinion,” but instead of publishing them in the “opinion” section, they places them under the “news” tab. Similarly, many TV and Radio personalities present themselves as reporting the news when, in fact, they are adding heavy layers of opinion to the basic facts.
- Employing Guilt by Association. Media outlets are powerful enough to destroy a person’s reputation publicly even when the person does not deserve such destruction. In such instances, media outlets demonstrate that they don’t care if it an insinuation is true or not; they wish simply to make the negative association to achieve their end goal of “taking down” a particular man or woman.
- Labeling Inaccurately. Media outlets often apply misleading or outright false labels to persons they dislike. They might use a very scary label such as “fascist” or “communist” to refer to a person who doesn’t actually fit that description. Or, they might expand unreasonably the parameters of a good label such as “evangelical,” so that they define as “evangelical” any person who has said or done something negative and might feasibly referred to as an evangelical.
- Employing Verisimilitude. Media outlets know that they can mix a little bit of lie with the truth, such as playing heavily to a specific stereotype or basic assumption their audience already has, thus making the lie easy to accept. This strategy is similar to a “nutritionist” who mixes a small amount of poison into an otherwise healthy meal. Indeed, media outlets often slowly administer negative half-truths and slanderous insinuations in combination with factual realities. Eventually, they destroy their target without leaving their fingerprints on the scene.
- Making an “Animosity Sandwich.” When media outlets want to obscure something good that a disfavored person has said or done—and yet they feel constrained to report that good thing because national attention has already been given to it—they often will place that positive something in between two negative pieces of information. This way, the media manages to manipulate their audience even while reporting the positive something.
- Stacking the Decks. Often, media outlets assemble a panel of journalists, politicians, or intellectuals so that the discussion looks balanced but, in reality, the panel is stacked so that the outlet’s preferred conclusion “wins the day.” In other words, the outlet knows ahead of time who will “win” the debate; they know this because they invite only one person who represents the side they dislike. By so doing, they unleash the other experts against that one person, all the while appearing to be “balanced.” Again, the reason this is manipulation rather than persuasion is that the decks have been stacked ahead of time and this fact is hidden from the viewers.
- Repeating a Half-Truth or Lie ad Nauseum. One of the media’s favorite tricks is to repeat a half-truth or slanderous insinuation until their gullible audiences believe it. By so doing, they can create anger and fear in their audience, sometimes even triggering mass hysteria. The Nazi Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels exemplifies this type of manipulation with his statement, “You repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”
- Lampooning. Often, media outlets lampoon a politician unfairly. They might purposely select the most unflattering image of that person. Or, they might present his or her quotes out of context, making the politician look dull-witted, bad-willed, or apathetic. By contrast, these outlets purposely select the best images and the most favorable quotes of their preferred politician.
- Whitewashing or Blackening. Through skillful manipulation of their audiences, media outlets can make a reasonably good person look quite bad and can make a fairly bad person look quite good.
For Americans to sustain healthy local and national debate about social and political issues, we must see through media attempts to dupe us and control our thinking. If we don’t they will continue to demonize anybody they wish to criticize and lionize anybody they wish to promote; and they will continue to foster a culture of outrage and perpetuate conspiracy theories. And, significantly, we must keep their manipulative impulses from creeping into our own habits of communication. When manipulation wins the day, Americans lose. When persuasion wins the day, Americans win.