Only fifteen or twenty years ago the discerning news consumer had a relatively easy time of things. If you were reading the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and US News and World Report you were getting the facts necessary to understand national and world events. If you caught a few minutes of Morning Edition, The McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, the CBS Evening News and Nightline you were as well-informed as a body could be. On a bad day you could scan USA Today and get the truth condensed – you wouldn’t get a deep understanding, but at least you could feel comfortable you weren’t being lied to.
Things have become a bit more complicated.
You can still use all the sources I listed in the first paragraph. You can flip through the Times at breakfast (although, hey, you’re a 21st-century news consumer, so you’re reading the digital version, right?), listen to Morning Edition on your commute, catch the Evening News and NewsHour, maybe read a bit of Newsweek (sorry, make that “DailyBeast.com”) before bed and you’re the most well-informed woman at the water-cooler, right?
What happened? Well, for starters, cable news channels happened. A whole list of ’em, with news – or at least “news” in every flavor. And this whole internet thing happened. All of a sudden the news happens all day, every day. Even while you sleep. (Yes, of course the news always happened 24/7 – there just used to be a grace period for editors and publishers to process and package the news before they delivered it to your door.)
All of a sudden traditional news media outlets had to work harder to be first to the screen with the headline, and they had to be entertaining enough to keep you from leaving CNN for FOX or MSNBC or CNBC, etc. At the same time, the low entry-cost of blogging opened the world up to “citizen journalists” at every keyboard in the industrialized world.
And then 9/11 happened. Not to be cynical, but 9/11 made cable news channels indispensable. Your local news station was essentially useless, and the paper wouldn’t be on your doorstep for nearly 24 hours, so you had to go to cable news because you honestly had to know what was happening. 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened to cable news channels.
But then something else happened. As George Bush turned the goodwill that followed 9/11 into a hell-bent invasion of Iraq, the traditional media – with rare exceptions – jumped on the bandwagon. Bill Moyers details this in one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve ever seen, Buying the War.
As you may remember, not everyone thought the war was as good an idea as the White House and the traditional media did. Political blogs, both pro and con the Iraq War, exploded overnight. Most of the heavyweight political blogs got their start as anti (or pro) war blogs (DailyKos, anyone?)
Over the course of the 2000’s, we news consumers learned a few things. We learned that some of the blogs were doing better journalism than the fat-and-happy network reporters. We learned that some guy sitting in his spare bedroom obsessively collecting links on this subject or that and posting them endlessly could actually be a more reliable source of headlines than CNN Headline News. We learned that the cable news channels were as likely to make mistakes in reporting as the blogs were.
And, unfortunately for those of us who respected the NYT, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, et al, we learned that they were wrong about the big stuff on an uncomfortably consistent basis.
So here we are in 2013, with a staggering array of reporting/data/opinion/entertainment/propaganda at our fingertips. And a lingering feeling that we have to doubt every bit of it.
Who should we trust? The fact is that we can’t – or at least shouldn’t – trust any news source implicitly. There’s no Walter Cronkite anymore, and we’re left with a self-described purveyor of “fake news” as one of the most honest and trusted names in news.
But that’s not to say the 2013 news consumer is on her or his own, not by a long shot. There are sources out there holding the traditional media’s feet to the fire, and by following some of those sources and, more importantly, exercising a good regimen of personal and group fact-checking we can find information worthy of our trust.
Here are some good rules to follow for separating the propaganda from the truth and the paranoia from the facts:
First, regarding newspapers, if it comes from the opinion page, it’s opinion. Now, it’s true that often real, actual facts are referenced in opinion pieces. But it’s our job as readers to confirm those facts. The actual reporting in the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times are both solid and have been, generally speaking, fact-checked. The opinion pages, not so much. They’re opinion, and those opinions are often worth exactly as much as mine or yours.
Second, and as a corollary to the first point, do take the time to think critically about the actual reporting in the big news operations as well. Follow more than one national news source, and if their pieces on a topic sound strangely similar, guess what? You’re reading prepared comments supplied to the reporters by someone whose job it is to help you think a certain way about a certain topic.
Third, understand that there is no longer a “wall” between the sales and news divisions of the traditional media. There used to be, and many people believe there still is, but is simply is not true. A variety of expectations of the national news media changed in the 1980’s and 90’s, resulting in massive downsizing of news operations … and more management input into editorial content.
Fourth, be aware of who owns the news organization with whom you are interacting. For instance, Disney owns ABC. You are unlikely to read anything critical of the entertainment industry on ABC. By the same token, the WSJ and FOX News are unlikely to be unkind to each other.
Fifth, a random blog post from some dude you don’t know might be a gold mine of great information. Or it might be a bunch of stuff that guy made up after his third quart of Mad Dog. Read more than one of the posts on the page. See who is linked to – and from. See if anyone reputable (by the standards above) trusts the blogger. Click through the links. If the blog sounds perfectly reasonable, but the only links are self-referential and to Alex Jones, you might want to classify said blog as entertainment. And remember, just because you like that blog’s message or style doesn’t mean the blogger is writing anything factual.
Sixth, develop your own system. Figure out, through your own sourcing and fact-checking, who you can trust. Talk to other people doing the same work, and share information. When you find a source you trust, keep spot-checking it, but feel free to recommend it to others.
News-gathering has become more difficult, but that’s primarily because the burden of pursuing truth has shifted to our shoulders and consumers. The good news is that we can be far more certain of the truth of the news we find today with a little extra effort.