Four Ways the Media Can Misrepresent Reality

by Patricia Engler on June 30, 2021
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It’s no secret that when it comes to information in the media, “facts” are not always what they seem. Let’s uncover four ways the media can distort reality and how to respond with biblical, critical thinking.

I hardly recognized the creature staring back at me.

Its shrunken sort of face, eclipsed by bulging eyes, looked like an apparition torn from the poster of a low-budget sci-fi movie. Only in this movie, the alien sported frizzy hair and flannel plaid. Plaid that looked suspiciously like the kind I happened to be wearing.

Yikes. I hadn’t known what to expect that day during my travels to interview Christian students when a friend had pulled me into a photo booth in Tokyo. But I certainly hadn’t planned to turn into an alien.

Filter by filter, the photobooth had altered the real image of my face—exaggerating some features, playing down others, and even faking a few—until a rather different version of the “truth” emerged. Then, the machine sold me that rendition of “reality” so I could share it on social media. (Believe me, I didn’t!)

Sounds a little like the process we see happening in the media at times, hey? Even unintentionally, news sources, reporters, editors, and producers can alter the fuller picture of reality—exaggerating some facts, playing down others, and potentially even faking a few—until a rather different version of the “truth” emerges.

In a culture that loves to photoshop the truth, how can we remove layers of potential distortion from media messages to discern a more authentic picture? The answer lies in a little biblical, critical thinking. Let’s look at just four of the most common ways the media can misrepresent reality and how a few of the 7 Checks of Critical Thinking can help us see through each.

1. Misquoting

What are the sources of these famous quotations?

  • “Never, never, never give up.”
  • “I cannot tell a lie.”
  • “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
  • “Let them eat cake.”

Pop culture may have told you the answers are Churchill, Washington, Gandhi, and Antionette. But a little fact-checking will reveal that, while some of these lines are quasi-reasonable paraphrases, none of them are direct quotes from their alleged sources.

As these examples illustrate, words become easily twisted. Quotes can be misreported, misattributed, or altogether fabricated. And intentionally or not, the media can distort reality by mishandling quotes in multiple ways. For example, whole quotes can be taken out of context or only quoted in part, making statements sound like they meant something other than they really did. Paraphrases which do not quote the source’s original words may also end up misrepresenting statements. Either way, misquotations readily give rise to straw-man fallacies—logical errors that involve misrepresenting someone’s perspective to make it sound weaker than it really is.

One of the surest ways to catch misquotations (and related fallacies) is to apply Critical Thinking Check #3, Check the Source, by tracking down the original quote in its full context.1 If there’s no way to find the original or to speak with its source (especially if the quote contradicts your knowledge of the source or was reported by someone of unknown reliability), it’s probably wise to take the quote with a grain of salt.

2. Manipulating Definitions

Misquotations aren’t the only troublesome twists on wording. Media messages can also present a distorted reality by using words with manipulated definitions—even if the media was not originally responsible for those manipulations.

For example, say you come across an article that depicts creationists as “science deniers.” What’s the meaning of science there? Do creationists have a problem with applying the scientific method to measure, describe, or experiment on things we can see in the present—in other words, with observational science? Quite the contrary. It’s not facts which biblical creationists question, but human interpretations of certain facts based on evolutionary assumptions about the past—a version of historical science.2 If you notice a word like science changing meanings during a message, you’ve spotted a logical fallacy called equivocation.3

Along with equivocation, you may notice the media using words which have been redefined for “loading the language,” or creating clichés to promote a certain ideology and silence opposition. Robert Lifton, the psychiatrist who first described the “thought reform” tactics of 20th-century communist regimes, identified extreme patterns of language-loading as a hallmark of “brainwashing” environments.4 The example of language-loading5 Lifton cited from regimes decades ago (which we’re seeing again today) involved labeling people who agree with a mainstream ideology as progressive while painting those who disagree as essentially oppressive. Thinking about (re)definitions for words like truth and tolerance may bring other examples to mind as well.

Ultimately, whether looking at language loading, equivocation, or other manipulations, we can see through all these types of wordplay by applying Critical Thinking Check #4, Check the Definitions.

3. Sharing Propaganda

Loading the language is one kind of propaganda—communication that persuades by appealing to something other than logic (and potentially by misusing select facts, as we’ll see in a moment).6 Here are a few propaganda tactics you might notice in some of the media:

  • Emotional appeals: relying mainly on emotionally charged rhetoric, rather than logic, to persuade.
  • Labelling: using name-calling, rather than logic, to make a point about someone or something.
  • Question-begging epithet: using biased (often emotionally charged) language to imply a conclusion that has not been logically established.
  • Positive or negative association: relating one person or thing to something (or someone) else considered positive or negative when there is little logical basis for such a connection.
  • Illusionary balance: creating a false sense of objectivity by talking about different perspectives on an issue—but only when all those perspectives still fall under the same “dominant ideology.”7 (For example, an article may quote different researchers giving different explanations for a new fossil—so long as both explanations fall within an evolutionary framework.8)
  • Manipulative emphasis: highlighting or downplaying certain stories, or aspects of stories, to make them seem more or less significant than logic alone would suggest. As my critical thinking textbook observed,

    The size of headlines, the position of stories, the order in which facts are presented—all these things can give unmerited emphasis to a story or some of its claims. To counteract this tactic, ask if the emphasis is really deserved—or, more broadly, if the story or story part is really as significant as the reporter would have you believe.9

You can catch these and other tactics by applying Critical Thinking Check 5, Check for Propaganda, to ask, “Why does this message sound persuasive?”

4. Misleading with Facts

Often, propaganda sounds even more persuasive when it includes a few legitimate facts. One way to mislead with facts is to present only those facts (or interpretations of facts) that support a certain side of the story while omitting others. A second way is to present interpretations of facts as though they were observable facts themselves—a tactic I often saw in my evolutionary textbooks. And a third (but hardly final) way is to leverage framing effects, highlighting only the positive or negative side of a statistic to promote a certain conclusion. For instance, an article may extoll a new treatment for being “80% effective,” or denounce it for “failing to help 1 in 5 patients.”

Framing effects are one type of spin, which researchers have defined as “the presentation of information in a particular way, a slant, especially a favorable one.” 10 One study of 130 Google News stories reporting findings from health-related studies found that 88% of the stories featured some kind of spin.11 Common types of spin included overgeneralizing a study’s results, focusing on a single success story rather than considering all the experimental results, and failing to report the negative effects of treatments that the original studies did report. Later experiments revealed just how compelling a “well-spun” story can be, confirming that news stories with spin are especially likely to persuade people that a new treatment is beneficial.12

To outsmart many types of spin (and other ways of misleading with facts), it helps to ask the key questions of Critical Thinking Check #6, Check the Interpretations: “Which parts of this message are real facts from observational science? Which are assumptions, opinions, speculations, or interpretations? Is there another explanation for the same facts that makes at least as much sense? And is there another side of the story, or other relevant facts to consider?”

Back to Reality

All these examples remind us that things are not always as they seem when it comes to messages in the media. Ideally, many of the stories we encounter will present the most accurate rendition of reality possible. But there are no guarantees. All too often, intentional or unintentional factors like misquotations, manipulated definitions, propaganda tactics, and misleading presentations of facts can “photoshop” reality into a distorted image, alien to the truth. But biblical, critical thinking can help us see through many layers of distortion, reminding us that our surest information source is not fallible humans, but God’s infallible word. Now that’s good news.

Footnotes

  1. If the quote came from a scientific study, you can find tips on tracking down the original research in my earlier post, “How to Find and Read Scientific Studies,” Answers in Genesis, April 21, 2021.
  2. For more information, see Roger Patterson, “Science and the Bible: Should There Be a Conflict?” in Ken Ham, ed., The New Answers Book 4 (Green Forest: Master Books, 2013), https://answersingenesis.org/creation-vs-evolution/battle-between-science-and-the-bible/.
  3. Other prime targets for equivocation include evolution, person, and religion. For instance, say an article reports that a study on natural selection shows “evolution in action,” offering “proof” of life’s alleged evolutionary origins. Evolution in the sense of “variation within kinds of living things due to a net loss of genetic information,” which we can observe happening, is not at all evolution in the sense of “one kind of creature transforming into another kind through a gain of genetic information,” which we cannot observe happening. Using both senses interchangeably is equivocation.
  4. Robert Lifton, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing' in China (New York: Norton, 1963), 429-430. (For more on what “brainwashing” is, how it differs from teaching, and how to recognize and respond to “brainwashing” messages in today’s culture, see Critical Thinking Scan Season 6 on Answers TV.)
  5. Note: Lifton’s description of loading the language is a bit different from the informal logical fallacy called loaded language or complex question, which you can learn about here.
  6. Propaganda can be used to promote good causes and true messages; the trouble comes when the main persuasive power of a message lies in factors besides the message’s content. (This is especially prone to happen in messages which have limited logical basis, so must be promoted primarily by propaganda.)
  7. Illusionary balance is not a technical term, but a concept described by Chomsky, 1989, cited in Florian Zollmann, "Bringing Propaganda Back into News Media Studies," Critical Sociology 45, no. 3 (2019): 329-345. (Note: While this paper presents an informative argument on why the media should be considered a key means of disseminating propaganda, including via many of the tactics listed above, it’s worth noting that readers should apply biblical, critical thinking to the underlying concepts and worldviews where the paper’s leanings hint at Marxism. For more information, see Dr. Jerry Bergman, “The Darwinian Foundation of Communism,” Journal of Creation, 15, no 1 (April 2001): 89-95, and Calvin Smith, “Marxism: Darwinism Lived Out,” Answers in Genesis, February 1, 2021.)
  8. This is not an argument for including biblical interpretations of observational science in the mainstream media (although that would be great); it’s just an example of a common case where diverse perspectives are allowed so long as they’re all within a certain framework. (Some may say that including biblical explanations with evolutionary ones would be an example of false balance, where two perspectives are treated as equal when one is far more consistent with the facts. This may be true—but in the opposite direction some would expect, as a careful examination reveals observational science is consistent with biblical explanations and comparatively inconsistent with evolutionary ones. Others may argue that only naturalistic explanatory frameworks should be considered for scientific reasoning; however, for a discussion of the problems with this idea, see Jason Lisle, “Must Science Exclude the Supernatural?” Answers in Genesis, May 30, 2008, https://answersingenesis.org/what-is-science/must-science-exclude-the-supernatural/.)
  9. Chris MacDonald and Lewis Vaughn, The Power of Critical Thinking, 4th Canadian ed. (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2016), 151.
  10. Isabelle Boutron et al., "Three Randomized Controlled Trials Evaluating the Impact of “Spin” in Health News Stories Reporting Studies of Pharmacologic Treatments on Patients’/Caregivers’ Interpretation of Treatment Benefit," BMC Medicine 17, no. 1 (2019): 1–10.
  11. Romana Haneef et al., "Interpretation of Results of Studies Evaluating an Intervention Highlighted in Google Health News: A Cross-Sectional Study of News," PloS One 10, no. 10 (2015): e0140889.
  12. Isabelle Boutron et al., (2019): 1–10.

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