Even though we have more so-called news and information sources at our fingertips today than ever before, there is growing distrust and maligning of news people … reporters, journalists and the outlets where they work. No doubt a large part of the criticism is the cause and the fallout of partisan politics, and the agendas of big business and governments. Journalism has become a casualty, like the victim of a drive-by shooting.
Money and power, avarice and greed. With today’s media being “used” for multitudes of nefarious purposes, who can we believe, what’s to be trusted?
We hear the words “fake news” so often I wonder with a chuckle whether some entrepreneurial soul will copyright the words. But the meaning of “fake news” is no laughing matter. Quite the contrary, calling free press in America “fake news” is a form of slander against the Fourth Estate, a challenge to our fundamental rights and freedoms of speech under the Constitution.
I admit that I don’t ever recall hearing the words “fake news” casually bandied about before the contentious 2016 year of politics. Think for a moment about how empty, how silly those two words are. “Fake news.” It logically means nothing, and in reality is so broadly general that its use is trivial … nonsense.
We have unquestionably seen a decline in the quality of journalism in America, blamed not on “fake-anything” but rather on the insatiable greed of media companies. Starting in 1985, the major television networks folded their news divisions under entertainment in order to make more money. It marked a sea change in broadcast journalism.
No longer a proud trade grounded on an emphasis of excellence, accuracy, enlightenment and intelligence, TV news became show biz. We saw the rise of highly paid celebrity blowhards with shrill opinions, agendas, ideologies and vendettas.
The explosion of the Internet and wireless digital gave birth to a mutant and distorted form of outrageousness masquerading under the guise of “news” and nearly always driven by making wealth through sowing lies, confusion and old-fashioned propaganda. At the same time, legacy news organizations delighted shareholders with layoffs of journalism’s veterans. Heck, just hire kids straight out of journalism school … better yet, make them work as low-paid interns.
What does experience matter at cable television where everything – including what happened yesterday and last week – is labeled “Breaking News” – and hardly anyone’s a solid, accomplished journalist but rather throngs of shrill pundits … “the minds of the great mentioners,” as David Brooks of the New York Times calls them. It doesn’t cost much to have a half dozen opinionators yelling at each other … and they are not getting paid to tell the truth.
Today, few people have a lot of confidence in information from professional news outfits. Only 22 percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they had “a lot” of trust in local news coverage. The number was lower for national news organizations … just 18 percent. Worse yet was social media with merely a 4 percent trust level.
Are we living in a post-truth, post-trust era? Has our culture eroded to such an extent that we struggle and cannot discern something to be believed from falsehood? Are we left today with fewer traditional guideposts for whom to believe? Where do we turn for the truth in news … something to believe in day after day?
Amid all the noise and jumble, how can we find facts that are accurate, news that is legitimate, and information that is truthful.
Ask yourself some quick questions. If you have time to scroll Facebook or watch the news, you probably have a moment to decide if a news story seems credible or is phony. Here are 12 guideposts:
Acknowledge the power, reach and bias of “corporate” mainstream media. Major corporate conglomerates with diverse holdings and agendas own much of mainstream media in America, and they all have corporate agendas. Each television newscast, whether network and local news, adheres to the strict commercial and/or political script mandated by corporate ownership. Same way with newspaper chains. Editorial slant is decided in corporate offices, designed to achieve objectives and political leanings. Some remote newspaper owners, for instance, dictate that features with an “anti-media” or “anti-DC” slant that must be run by local papers.
Is the story so outrageous you can’t believe it? Maybe you shouldn’t. Respect the intuitive voice inside you that raises a red flag. If headlines use such words as “Jaw-Dropping” or “Mind-Blowing,” it’s not news but hype.
Is the story so outrageous you do believe it? That’s also a warning sign. Many stories play on your existing beliefs. If the story perfectly confirms your worst suspicions, look for more information.
Does the headline match the article? Many headlines we see today are designed solely to sucker-in readers. Dramatic misleading headlines are called “clickbait.”
Beware the cliché. The seemingly clever twist of words or slogan may seem to portray a situation, a moment in time. Might a trite expression seen or repeated over and over, whether online or on the air, actually be a form of propaganda?
Does the story attack a generic enemy? Vague denunciations of “Washington” or “the fake media” or a group of people should be marked down as less than valid. Good reporting doesn’t make rash generalizations. Quite the contrary, it is specific about who is making a claim about what.
Avoid the conspiracy theorist. The faceless anonymity of blogs has fueled countless conspiracy theorists. The list of bizarre rumors and unfounded assertions is seemingly endless … and, in the end, an irrelevant and misleading distraction in the quest to find news that’s not fake.
Are you asked to rely on one killer and perhaps fictitious theory or factoid? Not a good idea. If a hacked or questionable document “proves” an implausible conspiracy, look for the context that shows what the document really means. As for photos and video, use Ronald Reagan’s old slogan: trust but verify. If there’s any doubt about a “stunning” or “mind-blowing” video, see if more traditional sources link to it … a sure sign of validation.
Is the story set in the future? It’s hard to get firsthand reporting from speculation, “what-if” and imagination. Any story that tells you what will happen should be held suspect. No legitimate journalist owns a crystal ball.
Who are the news sources? Do reports rely on credible or invisible sources? Choose credibility over unfounded drama. Traditional news organizations may occasionally get it wrong — sometimes hugely wrong — but at least you know where to find them and hold them accountable. Less prominent news sites might carry so-called “jaw-dropping” stories — but expect them to show you who they are and where they gathered information.
Are you told, “Trust me”? Don’t. It’s the post-trust era! Expect everyone to show where their facts come from, link to underlying articles, and demonstrate that they’ve argued honestly. I advise to be suspicious of anyone who boasts too much about their honesty, brilliance and whether they can be trusted.
Broaden your horizon of interest. Make a point to read sites and check news outfits that do not agree with your politics. You may discover stories that are wrong — but you’ll know what other people are consuming, which will sharpen your own thinking.
And, a bonus … if TV news uses irrelevant and unrelated music for editorial emphasis or to dramatize, it’s not news but hype. BBC News is guilty of this nearly every day.
These simple questions should help to take you a long way toward judging the value of a news story. There are a lot of news and information choices out there, and you are under no obligation to believe any of them. If, however, a news source consistently passes the tests in this guide, support it.
Gathering reliable news and information isn’t free. There’s a price to journalism that can be trusted. It begins with hiring professionals who possess experience and knowledge. It may sound old-fashioned but we get what we pay for.