Make a resolution to improve your media literacy
Posted by Mike McGanne, Editor, The Times @mikemcgannpa
New year, same old … well, a lot of stuff.
We’ve been kicked in the buttocks by a virus for two years, half of the country thinks the other half are corrupt liars, and we’re walking towards a time when we don’t even agree on whether the sky is blue and if grass is green is.
Admittedly, there are a lot of things that cannot be repaired quickly or easily. But if anything can bring us anything in 2022, it should be: Learning how to use the internet and the media to separate fact from fiction.
Okay, here some of you are going to shake your head and denounce “mainstream media”. And some of it is deserved. But understanding your media and how it works is the beginning of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to news and information.
As someone who has worked in senior editorial positions at all levels of the media, from tiny mom-and-pop outfits (like this one) to what was then the world’s largest magazine publisher, I have a lot of insight into media and how to decipher it.
So what can you trust in?
It’s complicated sometimes, but not as hard as you think.
As it is not, major media outlets are right most of the time. If they do something wrong, they will be sued, attacked by competitors and those who cover them, and they will lose audiences and, with it, advertising revenue. You have a financial incentive to get it right as best you can. Despite claims about the “liberal” media, practically all media are owned by large corporations with more conservative management. So while writers and editors have a certain liberal bias (which doesn’t play out the way you think it does), property and publishers generally don’t.
Okay, the media’s “liberal” bias: it’s true, but usually not as cheerleading for liberal purposes. But on the contrary. To appear “fair”, many – and earlier in my career it was probably my fault – go tougher on Democrats and give Republicans the benefit of the doubt because they want to be viewed as fair and impartial. The GOP is aware of this and uses it to its advantage.
Here we get a lot of today’s “both sides” framing of things like the fake claim that the election was stolen, despite clear evidence that not only was it not stolen, but that most elected officials claim it was illegitimate, know it wasn’t and openly lie about it.
Another point of criticism – and a legitimate one – is that many stories are framed from an elitist point of view that is completely out of the viewer’s point of view. Too many of the media types in DC and New York come from a handful of journalism schools like Columbia or Missouri (or adapt their mindsets to those who have attended those schools) that many of the major media outlets have problems with the ivory tower perspective. Because the secondary and broadcast media are often modeled on the New York Times and Washington Post, we get a trickle-down effect on how the news is reported and how it is “received”.
So what do you trust? Not to sound selfish, but local media is probably the most accurate and reasonably fair. We need to see you at the local supermarket, at school events, etc. – we know our advertisers (and many of our readers) personally. That creates a level of accountability that you don’t see in a lot of media. One caveat: many local legacy newspapers have been picked up by hedge funds. While that doesn’t change the fact that they’re largely reliable, it creates two problems: First, because of massive cuts in staff and resources, fewer messages are handled. Second, with so few people, it means people double, triple, and take on their responsibilities, making mistakes more likely. To be fair, they’ll rush to make corrections and get it right.
But there is another concern: some “local” media are not local at all. Some are troll sites with portions of pirated local news content from this site and similar sites mixed in with propaganda. Some are run by a network of far-right organizations, others by foreign actors and even governments. They exist mainly to make people question whether regular media is correct or fair.
How to tell them apart: Do they have local ads? No Google ads (you can see a small “X” in the top right corner), but real local ads. If they don’t have ads – and the accountability that comes with them – the website could be fake.
Also: Facebook and Twitter are not news sites. They are more like graffiti on a bathroom wall and should be treated as such. You may have real news, but you need to review the procurement and, ideally, find multiple sources to confirm the information. And to be honest, everything on NextDoor is a dumpster fire – it’s a waste of time and otherwise perfectly good electrons.
The only thing I’ve learned since 1983 is that the real picture is like a tapestry. What is considered true and real depends on two things: how many threads you need for the image (again, more sources, higher message resolution) and the perspective. Up close the picture may tell you something, but withdrawn you may see an entirely different truth.
The educated news consumer is the most informed.
End of the lecture.
I wish you all a happy – and much healthier – 2022.
We’ll be back to our normal, snappy coverage of local and state politics in this room in two weeks’ time.
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