Before diving in to this post, I'd like to acknowledge that the American media and general public are currently in the throes of the Comey testimony and the timing of this topic is not a coincidence. If you're anything like me, you've probably had a building sense of exhaustion at the news cycle and may share my growing outrage that we've allowed the attention of our entire nation to be directed to tweetable stories, at the cost of enabling (and maybe even encouraging) glaring leadership failures. Such as collectively freaking out about allegations of Russian hackers interfering in our election, meanwhile allowing the leader of one of our most critical federal agencies with access to the most highly classified information to intentionally feed salacious information to the media before and after the most contentious election in recent history. (Remember how he decided to go ahead and tell everyone that he found some more Hillary emails just days before voting? And we're focused on Siberian teenagers with virus-ridden desktop computers from the '90s.)
That said, this post has been forming in my mind for months about how our media has officially parted ways from the hallmarks of journalism that have served the American public throughout the course of our history - and none of us are recognizing the problem, thinking for ourselves, or doing anything about it. (In short, this post is basically a sales pitch to bring critical thinking skills back in style.)
A friendly reminder on the role of the news media
My favorite professor in college was a former Washington Post journalist who was "old school" in every sense of the phrase but most notably in his strict adherence to the fundamentals of the science of reporting. His class was twice a week at 9 o'clock in the morning, the crack of dawn for a 20-year-old who lived on the opposite side of campus.
He required each of us to come to every class with a compilation of five grammatical, spelling, reporting or AP Style mistakes from national publications with the current date. This meant that I spent every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m. poring through the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Wall Street Journal with a fine toothed comb. All 15 students came to class each morning with a neat package of that day's failings of the journalism industry and left that semester with a habitual, spasmodic ability to spot errors (to the detriment of our future spouses and direct reports... see meme below).
We also came to abhor and judge reporters who broke the fundamental public trust of the trade by editorializing, inserting their own opinions, using unnamed sources, or failing to investigate alternate viewpoints to offer a balanced and fact-based story. Our professor taught us that words matter, because they incite thoughts, beliefs and actions - and a reporter's job was to present the facts in a way that enabled the reader to think critically about the story and come to his or her own opinion.
Fairness and accuracy are the foundations of ethical journalism, meaning that stories must be written with facts and balanced perspectives. Journalists are ethically bound to honor their duty to the public by reporting the truth, acting independently, providing transparency, and omitting their own biases to put the principles that guide their work first.
Why the role of the news media as a public servant is gone
That same professor is the reason that I never took a job in journalism, despite my love of writing and annoying yet uncontrollable penchant for striking up conversations with strangers. On the last day of class, he stood before us and pronounced that newspapers were dead. "Media is changing rapidly," he explained, "and transforming how information will be collected, reported and shared in the future." He made us promise to protect the fundamentals we learned in his class regardless of what our work would look like in the future. (Instead, I opted out and went down the road of corporate communications which has conveniently enabled me to pontificate on this subject from the point-of-view of a detached outsider.)
As my wise professor predicted, journalism has been transformed by social media to a point where it's almost unrecognizable. Real-time updates are shared online before there could possibly be time to check the facts. Anonymous phone calls and Facebook posts have become cited sources. Dubious and shabbily reported stories go viral on Twitter and YouTube. And the American public eats it all up without stopping to think about what it is they're hearing and subsequently believing. The majority of our news industry has transformed from one that used to encourage opinions and healthy debate, into one that discourages any perspective that represents a diversion from the court of public opinion.
I think the shift in how money is made when it comes to sharing information has got to be one of the primary drivers of the decline in trustworthy reporting: newspapers used to sell information to audiences, and today media outlets sell audiences to companies. The problem with this shift is that facts and balanced perspectives don't win likes, shares, comments and follows on social media. Organizations that develop and distribute "news" are incentivized to do things that grow their audience, meaning that driving user engagement takes the place of adhering to the fundamental ethics of journalism. It no longer matters if the information is true, but if it is popular.
How this is dangerous for all of us
We all know what catching our attention looks like. Our feeble human brains are wired for survival, meaning that we enthusiastically tune in to shocking information that either a. threatens our lives (e.g., natural disasters, terrorism, the great debate on eggs and heart attacks, etc.); b. threatens our identities (e.g., opinions on education, family and relationship norms, politics, whether or not there is life on Mars, etc.); c. feeds our voyeuristic urge to watch disasters happen to others (e.g., the Bachelorette, 15-car-pileups on the highway, coverage of Kim Kardashian's attack in Paris, etc.); or d. is purely entertaining.
So here we are in a time where popular opinion has replaced truth, retweeting puppy videos and consuming snippets of Comey's testimony that relate to Russian hackers electing the president and blabbing about our poorly structured thoughts on the matter to all of our equally uninformed yet strongly opinionated friends and colleagues. (I think you get the idea.)
Amidst all this chaos and distraction, there is still a government collecting our taxes and waging wars and making decisions on our behalf that affect our country, our lives, our children's lives and we don't have any reliable insight into what is actually happening nor do we really seem all that interested anyway.
What you can do to be better informed
So what to do about this in the event you've made it this far in the post and haven't been distracted by a gif of a cat hanging from a ceiling fan? I suggest you shrug your shoulders, sigh, and turn on House of Cards to temporarily placate your utter despair at your powerlessness. Just kidding, of course. I've been trying to answer this question myself for a while, and decided to do a few things to better educate myself and take a more proactive approach to staying informed. The most important of which has been cutting out any publication that violates the fundamental principles and ethics I learned in my college journalism classes (looking at you and your "anonymous sources," CNN) and reading all information with a critical lens.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind that can help you to identify better and more trustworthy information sources…
#1 Actively consume information with a lens of balance, asking yourself two key questions while you're listening or reading:
- Can I tell what the reporter personally thinks about this story or situation?
- Can I understand at least one other point of view in this story?
If I can't answer "no" to the first bullet, and "yes" to the second, I tend to disregard as unbalanced and poorly reported.
#2 Apply doubt to everything you hear, listening for the facts
This is the good old "prove it" tactic that you already use on a daily basis when people are trying to sell you on something. A healthy dose of doubt never hurt anyone and in fact probably helped you to invest in better anti-aging creams and index funds. Might as well apply the same principles to what you allow to take hold in your mind, right?
#3 Consider the source
A time tested tactic that should never have gone out of style. Trustworthy sources of information are independent, meaning that there is nothing influencing the information other than the desire to present the facts in a balanced way. When newspapers first came online, they offered subscriptions to access content in order to enable them to remain independent. This tactic was criticized, but it's allowed the ones that stuck to their guns to continue to hold themselves to the highest standards. This model relies on viewers to value independence, and be willing to pay for it to be better educated. Which is something I'm realizing is well worth the cost.
Ok, that's the end of my rant. I'm a believer that if you complain about something, you take on responsibility for helping to fix it, so I hope that this tirade did something for you. If you took something away from this, or have thoughts on the topic, please leave me a comment, shoot me an email, or share this post.