Thursday, November 17, 2016

Distrusting "the media"

Most people I know, on either side of the aisle, "distrust the media."  However, they don't distrust all media.  Everyone's selective about what they dismiss as "the lamestream media" or "the right-wing noise machine."  And unfortunately sometimes media which confirms a person's preexisting worldview gets accepted uncritically.  But, I mean, you have to trust something, at least a little bit, or how would you know anything?  I have yet to hear someone say, "I'm not sure who won the presidential election; it's true that the media says it was Trump, but we all know the media can't be trusted."  So we make a choice to trust some sources, and sometimes we choose the wrong ones.

We've all been seeing it a lot recently, as Facebook erupts with stories that are disproved by a two-minute factcheck, or false "facts" get quoted at us by people we thought of as intelligent and skeptical.  For instance, in the past few days I have read that Trump really did win the popular vote after all (he didn't), that three million illegal immigrants voted in California (there is no evidence for this), and that Steve Bannon is an open white supremacist (the most that can be verified is that he does not appear to mind profiting off of white supremacy).  But rather than just seeing sketchy links that proclaimed these "facts," I heard them cited as common knowledge by people who I don't think of as dumb.  So clearly the purveyors of misinformation are getting really good at what they do.

My first idea to combat this was to compile a list of reputable news sites and junk news sites, so that people would stop sharing stuff from Infowars and thinking that made them look knowledgeable.  But the trouble with that is, any list I could possibly compile would appear biased to someone.  If I criticized a site you trust, rather than take my word for it, you'd mistrust me.

So instead, I'm going to offer some tips for assessing a story that you see shared online.

1.  Scrutinize the website.  A site crowded with intrusive pop-up ads is a bad sign, while a paywall or free-article limit is a good sign -- their content is good enough that they fully expect people will pay up for it.  Poor site design is a bad sign -- if they can't afford a web designer, it's unlikely they employ a fact-checker either.  Look at the other headlines featured on the site -- are all of them stories that seem reasonable or credible?  Boring stuff like "Trump meets with foreign ambassador" or "Paul Ryan considers tactics for next year" are good signs.  Outrageous headlines like "Trump in the pay of the Russians" or "Chemtrails increase in 2016" are terrible signs.  If there is even one headline on the site that you know for sure is false, the site itself clearly is untrustworthy.

In general, sources that are not only online are more professional and therefore more trustworthy.  If it's the online version of a TV network, radio network, or (best of all) print newspaper, then it has a reputation to lose which it will very carefully protect by hiring factcheckers and going over the information carefully.  Otherwise, it risks a lawsuit or a loss of subscribers.  An internet-only source is more likely to be short-lived and operated on a shoestring, perhaps without any factcheckers at all.  Local papers are often very professional, but you want to be careful to make sure that's a local paper you're reading and not something deceptively named to trick you into thinking it's the hometown paper of Omaha when it's really a junk website.

2.  Read the article.  Keep in mind that the body of the article is where the facts are -- the headline is written by an editor afterward and may be misleading.  Ask yourself: what sources does the article cite?

Best: "Joe Schmoe, assistance secretary to the chairman of the board, said..."
Acceptable: "A source close to the official said ..."
Worst: "Dan Whackadoo, president of [organization you've never heard of that clearly lobbies for a certain point of view] said ...."

There should be multiple sources quoted in the article, and they should not all be anonymous.  When I was interviewed by the AP for their article on my boarding school, the journalist urged me to go on the record by name if at all possible.  She might throw in a quote by an anonymous source (provided, of course, that she knew who it was), but she couldn't base the crucial facts of her article on those.  Good news readers give the most credibility to named sources who can be proven to be close to the story.  Even within a single story, when a fact is tied to a named source, it is more likely to be true than facts supported only by anonymous sources.  And quotes from the spokespeople of lobby groups are there only for flavor and opinion -- they aren't close to the story so they are in no position to know.

3.  Consider bias.  Here, it helps if you know the slant of the media outlet you're reading.  Most of the most popular professional outlets in America are slightly left-of-center.  They try to be balanced, but no one really is.  So if you can guess at the direction the bias is coming from, it'll help you interpret the story.  Ask yourself: what facts are not included?  What facts might completely change my interpretation of this story if they were included?  A reputable paper will be very careful not to include any facts it can't verify, but they are a lot sneakier about leaving out details that make their side look bad.  Or they'll slip in bits of interpretation or opinion here and there -- can you identify them and mentally set them apart from the actual facts described?  Ask yourself: what actual verifiable facts are in this article?  So if the article is about Steve Bannon being a white supremacist, throw out anything that smacks of hinting or generalizing and dig for the actual facts used to support the opinion that he is a white supremacist.  What can we verify that he said, wrote, or did?

4.  Check multiple sources.  The simplest way to do this is to simply copy the headline, paste it into Google, and see what you get.  Google ranks its search results based on the credibility of each site -- more linkbacks from other sources mean higher pagerank -- so the links on the first page are probably as good as it's going to get.  Are there any sources on the first page that are reputable papers you've heard of?  If so, go there first -- preferably picking one each from the left and the right.  If both accept the story is true and offer sources, then I think you can safely say, it probably happened.  If not, pick a couple and look at all of them.  If the story seems outrageous or incredible and it isn't being covered by the "mainstream media," there is probably a reason.  Major news outlets love their clicks as much as anyone and if there were a story that exciting, they would either post the story or post an answer or rebuttal of the story.  Unless, of course, they looked into it and couldn't find any evidence it actually happened.

If you're in that boat, try adding the word "factcheck," "hoax," or "snopes" to your search.  If it's really a scam, these usually appear within 24 hours of the original story.  But don't jump to conclusions!  Just because a factchecking site covered it doesn't mean it's a hoax.  The factchecking site should go through the evidence for the story and assess whether it is credible.  Usually they will include outside links for you to go look for yourself.  So that should help put to bed the idea that "Snopes is biased so I can't trust it when it debunked this story."  Maybe it is biased, but if it provides sources or good reasons to disbelieve the story, you should take that into consideration.  Sadly what most people mean when they say "Snopes [or whoever] is biased" is, "It debunked one of my pet conspiracies, and I'm just so sure it's real."  If you're so tied into continuing to believe what you already believe, you will never succeed at wading through the media to find the truth.

5.  Finally, if you don't have time to do all this, or you've tried and you still can't find any strong evidence to be sure about the story ... don't share it!  Or, if you want to mention the story in a discussion, make clear that you are uncertain about it.  Say, "I heard that x, but I don't know whether to believe it," or "Have you heard the rumor that y?  I can't find a good source for it, but maybe you should do some research if you're interested."

Nothing drives me crazy like people trotting out rumor as fact, who, when called on it, say, "Well, sorry, I hadn't looked into it yet!"  Yeah, okay, then don't tell people it's true!  You all know I have issues with people standing as witness for things they haven't honestly looked into.  What happens then is that other people repeat the story, convinced it's true because Bob, who is such a smart honest guy, said it was.  You trust that people checked their sources, when often they did not.  Which is why I would advise doing this same diligence on a story even if your best friend who is in Mensa told you it's true.  They might be a bit lazy and didn't check.  Don't be another link in the rumor chain.

1 comment:

Melissa D said...

Great post. One comment - page views can push fake articles to the top of Google search results, so look carefully for sources of sources.

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