Being an active participant means reading, not just sharing.
News organizations took considerable flack during the 2016 election campaign for biased and simply bad coverage. After failing to predict the election results, and facing record public mistrust, all of them are taking a hard look at how they write the news. That’s crucial. We are about to enter an unprecedented period, where the president has neither military nor political experience, faces a nation that’s more divided than it’s been in decades, and promises change on a scale we’ve never seen. He’s also threatened to sue journalists. This could turn out to be a grand experiment—or an unmitigated disaster. Because of this, you need to reevaluate how you read the news, too. Here are some tips.
Be vigilantly on guard against fake news.
Recent investigations have found that much of the news shared on social media isn’t news. It’s politically biased “fake” stories churned out by mom-and-pop moonlighters in the Philippines, or teenagers in Macedonia looking to make a quick buck. In a two-week period before the election, MSNBC reported that 38% of GOP-related news and 19% of Democratic-related “news stories” were simply false. That’s still happening. So get your news like you would your groceries?—?by yourself.
Don’t get all your news from one source.
Not long ago, people used to get one newspaper delivered to their house. When it came to TV news, you literally had to choose which one you watched, because the three major broadcasters aired their newscasts at the same time. Instead of logging on to one newspaper TV channel’s website, log onto several, and search sites like Google News and Yahoo! News for the news you’re interested in. There’s also tremendous value in foreign news organizations. They all have reporters here, and they bring “outsider” perspectives that often shed new light on the issues.
Don’t rely exclusively on Facebook and Twitter.
62% of Americans get news from social media, Pew Research says. That means you’re only getting what your friends and family are sharing. You love them, but should you rely only on their impulses to keep you informed? Only reading your friends’ posts creates that “echo chamber” we keep hearing about.
Look out for journalistic pitfalls.
There are three terms you should familiarize yourself with. The first is what I like to call “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” This is when news outlets report unprecedented and abnormal events?—?like when a candidate says he’ll jail his opponent, or contravene international treaties the US has signed?—?without pointing out how aberrant they are. If something hasn’t happened before and is outside the bounds of government as usual, newswriting needs to reflect this radicalism.
“False equivalency” is another one. If one side says something, and its opponents respond with something that isn’t factual, that nonfact is often reported with equal weight by the news. For example, sometimes scientists cite massive amounts of evidence for a climatic phenomenon, and their opponents say it’s not happening?—?but don’t cite any hard evidence.
Other times a politician makes a statement that can be verified as fact, and her or his opponent makes a counter claim that is not factual. News outlets often present both arguments as equally valid, in an effort to be “fair and balanced.” That’s wrong, but it happens, so you need to be on the lookout for it. That’s easier when you know how to identify facts for yourself.
Don’t accept a “fact” until you see the source.
We tend to believe things that are written in an authoritative, “journalistic” voice. But fake news stories and many native advertisements and branded content are also written in that voice. You’d want to look hard at an article, even one with an authoritative voice, that is trying to sell you an unsafe car or baby seat?—?the same is true for political news. If news is written properly, the source for each fact will be named, right after the fact. If it’s accompanied by a link to the source, all the better.
Stop calling it “the media.”
As the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi wrote in September,
Dear readers: Please stop calling us ‘the media.’ There is no such thing. There are hundreds of broadcast and cable TV networks, a thousand or so local TV stations, a few thousand magazines and newspapers, several thousand radio stations and roughly a gazillion websites, blogs, newsletters and podcasts.
None of us like it when our race or religion is characterized as a monocultural, monolithic force. And it doesn’t aid your understanding to think of journalists collectively, either.
Don’t believe the hype.
A mover once came to my house and, upon hearing I was a journalist, said, “Oh, you just get together with the government and make the news up, right?” That is what many people think. It’s easy to be cynical and believe there’s a grand conspiracy going on.
I’ve worked as a journalist for 20 years, at outlets including CNN, Bloomberg and VICE. I’ve covered stories shoulder-to-shoulder with staffers from FOX News, PBS, CBS, NBC, NPR and ABC on the broadcast side, and the New York Times, Washington Post, South China Morning Post, Newsday, Newsweek, AP and Reuters on the print side. I’ve never seen evidence of an overarching conspiracy whereby working journalists deceive you by shilling for a corporation or a political party. I’ll quote Farhi again:
“Those who work in the media don’t gather in our huddle rooms each morning and light up the teleconference lines with plots to nettle and unsettle you. There is no media in the sense of a conspiracy to tilt perception.”
When there is a bias, it’s stated openly, in the editorial page, or by the host of a TV or radio show. Yes, sometimes journalists are lazy; sometimes they’re arrogant; and sometimes they do a bad job, but very few do it for the money. (Trust me.) For the most part, they’re trying to get to the truth so they can give it to you.
Think before you share.
I know from my own stats that more than half of the people who share a story of mine haven’t read it. When one of my stories is really popular, that drops down to a quarter. That tells me people look at the headline, “feel” something about it, hit “Share,” and close the article unread. I know that’s what happens, because I’ve done it, too.
Set for yourself the expectation that you’ll read the whole story. If you’re at work, perhaps skim it quickly; then bookmark it for later and make a commitment to read it on the train. If you don’t get to read it on the train, fine; maybe you’ll finish it over breakfast Sunday morning. The point is: Read. Otherwise, all you’re sharing is the headline and some 75–100 characters.
We count on journalists to report responsibly. In the uncertain four years we’re about to enter, we need to read it responsibly, too.