Lack of background information in news and social media

Alan Duff

A few hundred years ago, a mob of individuals destroyed about $3.5 million worth of assets owned by a large company as a means of protest. All of these individuals were never apprehended for their actions.
I have, in a very unspecific way, just described the Boston Tea Party. If this famous event had occurred yesterday, a similar news ticker probably would have run across the bottom of CNN, Fox or your local news station. The ability for the sources that give us the latest headlines like news stations, newspapers and tweets to take events out of their context is a real danger when interpreting and understanding events.
Especially guilty of these actions are televised new stations, Internet RSS feeds and tweets; however, most media are guilty of this transgression. They cover complex news stories with just a few sentences and provide the who, what, when and where without context for the why. Media coverage seems to allow and encourage a form of ignorance.
When no background information or historical context is given, many misinterpretations can be made. Take, for example, the headline “Two men walk into a bar and get knocked out.” Was there a fight? Did two men walk into a metal bar and bash their heads against it?
Social media websites like Twitter and Facebook encourage users to create short news posts. These small bites of information are useful when in the context of friends and family members that a person is communicating with on a regular basis, but to an outsider, many of these news feeds would make no sense without background information.
One example of a lack of proper context in the news comes from an article published recently by Fox News with the headline “South Dakota Lawmakers Propose Mandating Gun Ownership – to Make Point About Health Law.” The title alone allows only one side of the conflict between political ideas to be shown in any fair light. The article never shows the other side of the story so that readers can make their own decisions about the event.
Another example is the current protests taking place in Egypt. News sources like CNN and The New York Times, USA Today or the Post Crescent are happy to provide information about the protests and how long President Mubarak has been in office. They do not explain why Mubarak has remained in office for as long as he has, or the fact that Mubarak’s plan to have his son Gamal put into a position of power in the Egyptian government was one of the many tipping points that started the protests.
Mubarak was unique because he was one of the first presidents of Egypt to not come directly from the military, which makes the most recent decision for the military to stand aside all the more amazing. Trends like these are lost among all the talk about the effects of the riots on worldwide oil prices.
It is unwise to take a quote out of context because it can so easily have its meaning lost. Similarly, certain literary or artistic works like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” lose much of their meaning and impact when the necessary context is lacking.
If our media outlets provided background information and context with their headlining articles and broadcast topics, the public could make well-informed decisions that would not be a result of ignorance. We might even be able to talk about politics without everyone yelling at each other.