News- how to avoid fakery and find the truth
Updated: Nov 27, 2019
Where to you get your news from? News gathering is a critical function in this age of information and disinformation, often one that affects our very survival. To understand the world we live in and the constant changes afoot, accurate and timely news is essential. In some countries, the news media is strictly controlled by government or business entities. People only get read what is filtered through a propaganda screen. In the days of the World War II and the Iron Curtain afterwards, getting accurate news was a life or death struggle and people died trying to convey it.
All that changed with the arrival of television and then the internet. News could be carried on wires and in the air to sites that broadcast it day and night. Now we have the opposite problem- too much news and not all of it accurate. Censors have a hard time shutting it down, though China and North Korea are still successful in controlling what their people read. In many ways this flood of news is a good thing, and you would have thought that the average person would be more enlightened and informed than ever.
While more people are aware of the people and issues that affect them thanks to the news deluge, they don't seem any closer to understanding what it all means. We have constructed alternate "realities" that fit the news we are choosing to let in, which means that instead of the government censoring our information, we're doing it ourselves.
According to the Pew Research Center, most Americans get their news from television. My problem with television news is that it is more infotainment than serious journalism. With the exception of 60 Minutes and Frontline, television news programs are focused on ratings first and keeping viewers from switching the channels. There are few deep dives into complex issues, and on the cable channels there are armies of pundits dishing out opinions and agendas masquerading as news.
But it gets worse. Younger people, under the age of 30, primarily get their news from social media, which can be an amalgam of conspiracy theories, memes, and blog posts like this one that aren't fact checked or vetted independently. Add that to the large number who get their news from online news websites and the internet is now the source of news for most of those under age 50.
Internet news is a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories and legitimate news sites, all vying for clicks in an environment where sensational headlines get the most responses. The chart below is a good summary of what you are getting when you read news sites or their posts on social media. I may not agree 100% with the placement of each news source, but it's a fair representation.
Now you may look at the above chart and say, "wait a minute- I read that site and all their stuff is right on!" If that's your first impression, you may be living in the bubble. Describing "the media" like it was all one gargantuan organism that agrees on everything is deceiving yourself. The media is as varied as we are, and they more and more cater to our preconceived notions. Sites like NPR, BBC, CNN and Forbes straddle the middle even some call them biased. If you are at one extreme or another, they may appear to be biased to you, but only because they present information that conflicts what you believe. If you watch nothing but Fox News or MSNBC all day, you are getting an incomplete picture of the world. They might not lie directly, but they choose to leave out a lot of information that would make their viewers uncomfortable. And if you really want to know the truth you need to get uncomfortable once in a while- that's how you learn and grow.
There are three ways to skew the news towards a particular bias- selectivity, exaggeration, and alternative facts. Even the best news sites have to be selective in what they focus on- there is just too much news out there. But once you focus on one thing and not another you set up an implicit bias that these things are more important. So ideally you try to balance out reality a little bit at a time by bringing in other news items from other areas to give more of a balance. The problem comes when your viewers get bored with reality and want you to focus on the shiny new dramas.
Then we get to the second level- exaggeration. At this point news sites become advocates for a certain point of view and seek out confirming evidence for the agenda that they want to promote. This is the well-known confirmation bias that psychologists have described, and it's almost impossible to escape from once the bubble is set up. We see things we like to see and they confirm what we already believe. Any contradictory evidence is shut out.
The final level, alternative facts, lies at the bottom left and right of the above chart. Instead of looking for facts that confirm beliefs, these sites make stuff up. This is the dark underbelly of the news world, where conspiracies hide around every corner. Did you know Disney named its movie "Frozen" so that people would stop finding out about Walt Disney's cryogenic frozen body when they search Google? Or that the earth is not only flat but also hollow, and there's an advanced civilization living down there? How about the one that says that not only was the moon landing a fake, but the moon doesn't actually exist- it's a projection by secret equipment to fool us? This is a dark, dangerous rabbit hole that we travel down at our own risk to our sanity and reality.
Everybody wants to feel good about their reality, even if it stinks. That's why we may embellish it with some self-serving ideas and look for boogeymen to blame for all that's wrong. Just be aware that we all do that and that there are more objective realities out there that don't revolve around one group of beliefs. When it comes to the news, the sources at the center and middle of the above chart are the most reliable because they practice journalistic standards.
In places where the government doesn't regulate the news, the news providers have voluntarily regulated themselves with journalistic principles. They are:
1- Get the facts and get them right. Check your sources and use multiple reliable sources to confirm when necessary.
2- Be independent from financial, political or religious special interests to report as objectively as possible.
3- Act fairly and impartially, seeing stories from all sides.
4- Humanity- do no harm when reporting stories.
5- Accountability- admit mistakes and listen to the audience.
Personally, I'm still partial to newspapers and the printed word. They provide a balance of local, national, and international news on a daily basis. They also balance political news with entertainment, sports, weather and funnies. They often skew a bit to the liberal side, but they have a code of professionalism that keeps them closer to the middle. You can read newspapers without staring at a screen, and they don't report back to anybody what you're looking at and how long. Print newspapers have been on the decline for decades, and their time is running short unless people change their habits.
Online news has three huge problems- price, professionalism, and viruses. People expect online news to be free, which is fine if you don't have to pay journalists to create content. To get accurate and informative content, you need professionals and you need to pay them, otherwise you get an army of bloggers like me who spout stories that might or might not be true. The last problem, viruses, means that certain types of stories become "viral" and spread quickly around the internet. The ones that spread fastest are the most sensational, maddening, sexy, and outrageous and also most likely to be untrue. Good journalism doesn't go viral easily, and if we want to keep our information clean and accurate we'll need to figure out a way to fight these problems.
There will always be a need for good, objective journalism, and the best news sites are looking for new ways to make a profit by following good standards. We can't keep looking for the information that only confirms what we already know. That's not news. Only by opening to the truly "new" can we learn and grow as individuals and society.