Monday, March 1, 2021

Where Should We Get Our News?

Is this important? An emphatic yes! America is so polarized that it not only has two parties but sometimes totally different views of reality. News is what informs us on the reality around us. If there are different views of reality, it follows that some sources of news conform to reality more than others. Those with critical thinking skills naturally will want to seek the path to reality wherever it may take them. But for others, reality is what they want it to be or whatever they are told it is. Unfortunately, there are some who offer "news" that takes advantage of this latter mindset. Even if what they offer might not be true, they can be very persuasive. And when others around them confirm what they receive in their alternative views to be the truth, it can and does easily replace reality until different versions of reality become entrenched. In this case, I am not referring to different versions of reality as opinion which is perfectly OK. I'm talking about those who have their own set of facts. Of course this only leads us down the rabbit hole. For us to have a functioning democracy, we have to at least agree on a common set of facts to be able to settle our differences. But there are some "news" sources who thrive on this chaos. And that presents a serious threat to our democracy.

This is hardly hyperbole. Democracies go down that slippery slope when propaganda snuffs the life out of truthful discourse. This happened in the fictional novel 1984.  But it has also happened in a number of countries around the world that we used to think of as free, but no longer. This hasn't happened to America because we still have a predominance of news sources we can rely on. But for how long?

Much of what is predominating the airwaves is opinion/entertainment that some will consume as news. AM radio is dominated by right-wing talk shows with the late Rush Limbaugh (and many imitators) being the most prominent examples. Cable news has been dominated for some time by Fox News. Their news content is in my opinion OK. For example, Chris Wallace and Bret Baier are respected journalists. Interestingly enough, the Fox News political poll is widely respected throughout the industry. But their opinion/entertainment shows, such as Hannity, Tucker Carlson Tonight, The Ingraham Angle along with Fox & Friends are OK if you are of a conservative persuasion. But a steady diet of this without at least some straight news to achieve some balance may cause you to acquire their views as your own perhaps false version of reality. That is not at all healthy. Disclosure: As a flaming liberal, I prefer the opinion programming of MSNBC. But only so much. I need to spend enough time reading online newspapers like The New York Times and my local paper to get enough straight news and then make my ultimate escape to cooking shows before depression takes over. 

So where are the best places for us to get our news? This is subjective not just only based on preferences but based on how much appetite for news each person has. 

So here is my subjective list:

Newspapers (either online or an actual newspaper) are best based on breadth and depth of the stories they cover. They suit someone with enough appetite for news along with the willingness to pay a subscription to get through the paywalls many newspapers now have. But you get what you pay for!

Cable news channels can't cover as much as a newspaper. But they are better than the sources listed below. But cable news can be subject to more bias which the viewer has to critically evaluate.

Commercial TV network news is a favored source for many people. But these are 30 minute broadcasts that are loaded with commercials and fluff pieces since they need to entertain their audiences to get those all-important ratings. It's better than nothing but a superior choice is the non-commercial PBS News Hour. No fluff and lots of depth because it's an hour long newscast with no commercials and no need to entertain for the sake of ratings.

Commercial radio news can be good if the format is long enough to include a broad enough presentation of stories. Non-commercial National Public Radio (NPR) is an excellent alternative.

Local TV news is perhaps adequate but only if supplemented by other news sources. These broadcasts are a major source of revenue for local TV stations. So it's about grabbing your attention with the emphasis on flashy stories rather than substance for again, those all-important ratings. And there is now some insidious right-wing bias creeping into local TV with Sinclair Broadcasting Group now owning 193 stations across the country. This video that went viral shows how these stations can be programmed to parrot the views of their corporate parent.

Finally there is news from social media which is becoming more popular but it is in my opinion the worst of the lot. I would argue that social media news is not really news at all. Let me explain.

News as we all know, is a gathering of new information from the world around us. Since there are almost infinite reports of what's going on in the world, we need an editor with adequate journalistic standards to select what is most relevant with the stories normally presented in descending order of importance. Some may have more bias or skills but each presents a single broadcast to all of its consumers. But with social media news, each member of the audience picks the news stories they want. And because social media is about getting as many clicks on stories as possible to generate advertising revenue, the stories are offered based on what was read before. So someone who likes say, liberal stories will be offered lots more liberal stories. It's the same for conservatives, conspiracy theorists and others. So instead of news, it becomes an echo chamber that reinforces what is already believed - otherwise known as confirmation bias. For a fascinating look at this phenomenon in more detail, the reader is invited to check out The Social Dilemma now available on Netflix. What makes this so dangerous is that the information presented can be based on reality or something that was made up. This is perhaps the best explanation on why so many Americans have political beliefs that are not based on fact. 

Pew Research Center is a respected non-partisan polling organization offering this interesting article Americans Who Mainly Get Their News on Social Media Are Less Engaged, Less Knowledgeable. Here are a couple of charts from the article.

There are a huge number of lies being propagated by social media including the incredible conspirator theories of QAnon which was preceded by the ludicrous Pizzagate where it was spread that members of the Democratic Party were behind a pedophilia ring at a Washington D.C. pizza shop. It's hard to believe anybody took this seriously but a man showed up firing his AR-15 rifle to as he said "self-investigate" the theory.

But the most serious lie to threaten our democracy was Donald Trump's claim that he won the 2020 presidential election instead of now President Biden because of what Trump called massive voter fraud. Polls still show that a majority of Republicans still believe that Trump is the legitimate president and not Biden. This can create some serious destabilization in a democratically elected government. 

Trump's claims of voter fraud can be dismissed by simple logic.

Let's start with a basic fact we all can agree with. The larger something is, the more difficult it is to hide. Allow me an extreme example to illustrate this.

I am asserting that there is an elephant in the room with me. We can determine the truth of this conclusively. If you see the elephant, the statement is true. If you can't, the statement is false. You can't say that it's there but it's hiding behind the couch or TV. On the other hand, if I claim there's a mouse in the room and you don't see it, it's always possible that it could be hiding somewhere.

Now, back to Trump. He is claiming fraud on levels never seen before. There is fraud in many of the states that Biden won (but none in the states that Trump won, of course).  More significantly, he's not just saying that he won but that he won in a landslide. In addition, none of his some 60 protests in court has yielded any evidence of fraud. And on top of that, his own sycophant Attorney General Barr announced that there was no widespread fraud to make any difference in the results of the election.

Trump's claim of election fraud is the same as the elephant in the room I was claiming. How can something so massive that allegedly involved so many people stay hidden all this time?  It can't because it doesn't exist.

This is another example of what is called a conspiracy theory. Instead of a plain explanation of something that happened, there are dark, mysterious actors behind the scene manipulating everything out of our sight. There are an almost unlimited number of these conspiracy theories. 9/11 was an inside job. The murders of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook were all staged. Etc. It's all garbage but there are enough people mostly from social media brainwashing who believe some of this stuff.

How is a Big Lie like this perpetuated? Trump's non-stop Twitter feed was a good start. When others online join in, more material supporting this is circulated on social media to those who rely on it for news. This is something beyond plain delusion. When enough people believe this through constant feedback through sources like Facebook, they get fired up to the point of being militant and perhaps advocating violence.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.  - Voltaire

There have been countless examples of this happening throughout history. But it will suffice to say that the most recent tragic example is the rioting invasion of the US Capitol on January 6.

Social media, most prominently Facebook and Twitter have been under fire from both sides of the political spectrum for some of the outlandish departures from truth that have spread everywhere. How do they get away with it?

Conventional media is required to adhere to some basic journalistic standards. For example, if they distribute something that is libelous, the target of that libel can sue the media outlet. Dominion and Smartmatic are suing Fox and others for false claims of tampering in the 2020 election. But social media gets an exemption from this due to the controversial Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act.

The regulation states, "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." 

What that means in practice is that internet companies — everything from social media platforms to online retailers to news sites — are generally not liable if a user posts something illegal. Backers of Section 230 credit in part for the success of companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which depend on vast amounts of user-generated content.

There is a good practical reason for this. Social media providers can have millions of posts that they help to forward. If they were responsible for policing all of this, there might not be any of these companies in existence because of the potential legal exposure. But some of what has been spread over social media is beyond the pale. Facebook is now doing more aggressive screening of posts. Twitter has banned Donald Trump for using his tweets to instigate violence. It should be pointed out that the First Amendment only protects from government censorship. Private platforms can boot anybody off as they see fit. Many feel that these social media outlets need to do more to protect against abuses. But how much they can and should do is both very controversial, not to mention very complicated.

So what can I recommend to the reader to find a suitable news source? First and foremost, don't rely on social media for your news, especially if it's your only source of news. Secondly, try to determine what kind of bias your chosen sources have. Here is a handy chart provided by on the major media players.

In addition, AllSides offers this site which evaluates over 800 media sources. Closer to the center is more desirable to get news with the least amount of bias. Those further away from the center may have an agenda to persuade you to a certain view so one has to be careful here.

But more important than the source you choose whether it is left or right, it is necessary to apply critical thinking to what you see or hear. Do they provide evidence to back up what they are saying? Maybe it's necessary to cross-check with other sources to determine the truth. Indeed, critical thinking is vital to keep us from being sucked into the land of make believe!

1 comment:

carolyn the librarian said...

The media bias chart was very interesting - it's a surprise that the WSJ is less biased than most (if I read it correctly). A need that is not expressed in most comments is the need for education in critical thinking, should be a required course i high schools and colleges.