My keychain bears one of the most complex facets of my identity as a Jew from the South. “Shalom, y’all,” it reads, the lettering surrounded by blue florals. While there are many things that I learned from my Jewish upbringing, the biggest lesson is the value of critical thinking and discourse. In my family, we joke that for every two Jews, there are three opinions. Judaism is not a spectator sport; it teaches that growth happens when we wrestle with ideas, both internally and in dialogue with others. Because of this, it was difficult for me to understand why my neighbors on the street where I grew up stopped inviting each other to social gatherings in 2016. While this is a side effect of being in the South, it is not unique to the region.
Scrolling through my Facebook, I worry about the curation of content on our social media feeds. Their algorithms feed me more of what I like, and less of what I don’t. Sometimes, this may seem like a good thing. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful motivation to avoid these ideas. But in 2016, and then again partway through Trump’s presidency, I realized I was in a bubble. Trump’s approval ratings didn’t match the criticism of him that I saw on my social media feeds. I noticed it again on January 6th, when Trump supporters stormed the capitol to protest and overturn the election results, and all I saw online were condemnations of Trump, his rhetoric, and his supporters.
But I know Trump supporters. I have family, neighbors, friends from middle school, who voted for Trump once, if not twice. They’re not all from the South, either. People I am connected to online – and in person - do not think the same way as me.
So I started seeking out their perspectives. I wanted to understand our fundamental disagreements. I sought out their Facebook accounts, I messaged them with questions, and I received and read articles with headlines that angered me. About a year ago, I decided to take this bubble-popping a step further. I wanted to better understand the news that’s read by people who disagree with me. So, against the advice of my friends, I set Fox News to push news alerts to my phone to better understand the perspective of someone who frequents the news outlet.
It turns out that Fox writers are prolific, and send more notifications to me than any other news source. Here’s what I’ve learned, as told through push notifications I’ve received in recent weeks:
1. The world is a scary place: “A man hired two killers to silence his rape victim, but the botched murder-for-hire plot took two unintended lives.”
An alarming number of Fox headlines are about murders, kidnappings, and violence. It’s not that these things don’t happen – of course they do, and they’re important to know about. But Fox puts so much emphasis on localized horror stories that it feels like these terrible things are happening in my backyard. It makes me scared. And research suggests that I’m not the only one. A study from the Columbia Business School shows that from 2005-2008, Fox speakers used words like “crime” and “homicide” at higher rates than speakers on CNN and MSNBC. The study also utilized an instrumental variable method to better understand how higher Fox News viewership contributes to longer incarceration sentences given by judges, especially for black defendants and drug-related crime. This establishes a causal link between locations with higher Fox viewership rates and the imposition of longer criminal sentences. Reporting on crime is a political tool, and the framing that Fox uses can contribute to unequal sentencing practices.
2. Democrats are hypocrites: “What John Kerry said after a reporter confronted him for taking a private jet to accept a climate award in Iceland.”
Polarization is not entirely the fault of Fox News. But Fox certainly does its part to further divide the country. Charity in the realm of political and civil morality is rarely extended to our political opponents. Those who sit across the aisle are automatically oppositional: it’s usually “us” versus “them.” While this is nothing new in politics, trends in political polarization show less cooperation across the aisle than ever before. Fox contributes by pointing out the many flaws in its opposition party, which makes collaboration and cooperation seem even more far-fetched. I was most curious about these headlines, especially because the bubble that I’m in shelters me from some of the genuine hypocritical actions of politicians in our two-party system.
3. Hollywood is the worst: “This actress revealed she made up having an identical twin in order to date two men at once.”
Gossip gets clicks. For a news outlet, Fox spends a lot of time reporting on the comings and goings of Hollywood celebrities, many of whom are Democrats. This type of coverage, while entertaining, increasingly shifts focus away important political conversations. After reading more of these headlines, I felt a growing gap between myself and Hollywood elites. They are caricatured into a faceless group, sharing the same characteristics. These headlines draw in readers and translate attention to anger towards those with more power. I usually avoided these headlines, but sometimes curiosity got the better of me.
4. Sowing doubt about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine: “Doctor issues new warning about COVID vaccines. Here’s what you need to know.”
Despite reporting on the FDA’s endorsement of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Fox continues to cast doubts on its efficacy and safety. How do we know the vaccines are safe, they ask. Reading these headlines makes me nervous, because they appeal to the fear and uncertainty that we experience right now. In the middle of so much conflicting information about the virus, safety measures, and vaccines, it’s easy to select the news that calms your fears or confirms what you already suspect - but I think this is another way that we lose by avoiding contradictory information. Fox steps in to provide clear, direct information and address the fears of millions of Americans about the safety of vaccines.
5. At the end of the day, Fox knows all: “Here’s what you need to know”
This phrase is used commonly to evoke the idea that Fox has all the answers. While this is not unique to Fox, I noticed phrases like this frequently appeared in the headlines they pushed to my phone. They portray themselves as the sole reporter, providing all the details on the news you could ever need. Furthermore, headlines are often written in a clickbait-y way, leaving out a critical detail to entice you to read the story, rather than creating an obvious headline. They make you want to learn more.
Growing up Jewish in the South taught me that many people don’t hold the same identities or think the same way as me, and I predict that reading these words gave me a better understanding of the 2.5 million primetime viewers of Fox.What I’ve learned is that Fox News headlines are catchy clickbait. They are relatable. They demand urgent attention. They point out hypocrisies, inform of danger, or call for change. They make me feel like the world is a little more small-town, a little more manageable, and a little better off with Republicans in charge.
For me, the Fox headlines didn’t get easier to read as the year progressed. It was most difficult for me to read the headlines about grisly crime and corrupt politicians, perhaps because those stories did not align with my existing world view. They’d sometimes interrupt me during school, or while I was already reading an article about the virus, and remind me of the fear that many have about the turbulent state of our country.
I am aware of my own disconfirmation bias, or inclination to criticize ideas that I initially disagree with. Discourse is my ideal form of civic engagement. My entire life, I have been encouraged to engage with ideas I don’t like and ask difficult questions of them. Discourse involves critical thinking, coalition building, compromise, empathy, persuasion, and self-reflection in the face of contradictory ideas. I respect your right to push the ‘block’ button - to turn off notifications - to say no, to take space. But we cannot pretend that other ideas do not exist, as much as we wish they didn’t. To me, discourse is the best way to hold people accountable, to persuade people we disagree with, to learn new ideas and strengthen our own positions. We might feel hurt and confused. I believe this is a critical human experience, though an exhausting one.
I have spent my time at Northwestern reflecting, discussing, voting, arguing, and more. If you have a different opinion, or recommendations of leftist news sources to check out, let me know. Let’s talk.
Eliana Buckner is a 4th year at Northwestern studying Economics with a Kellogg Certificate. She is a co-President of NU Political Union.
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