(This is an excerpt from my new book, "Mediactive." With this project, I hope to persuade media audiences to become active users, as consumers and participants. Today: Principles for Active Consumers.)
"What I like about April Fool's Day: One day a year we're asking whether news stories are true. It should be all 365."
The above quote is a Twitter tweet by Prentiss Riddle (@pzriddle) of Austin, Texas, posted on April 1, 2008. It's a line we should all live by.
Why don't we ask ourselves, every day, whether the news reports we're reading, listening to and watching are trustworthy? The fact that most of us don't is a vestige of the bygone era when we used to watch the late "Uncle" Walter Cronkite -- called the most trusted person in America before he retired as "CBS Evening News" anchor in 1981 -- deliver the headlines. It's a vestige of a time when we simply sat back and consumed our media.
At the risk of repeating this too often, let me say again: We can no longer afford to be passive consumers. In this chapter, we'll look at the core principles for turning mere consumption into active learning.
Even those of us who spend a good deal of our time creating media, as I do, are still consumers as well. In fact, we are and always will be more consumers than creators.
The principles below stem mostly from common sense; they involve the exercise of our inherent capacity for skepticism, judgment, free thinking, questioning and understanding. The tactics, tools and techniques we use to achieve this goals -- blog commenting systems, for example -- change with sometimes surprising speed, but these principles are fairly static. Essentially, they add up to something that we don't do enough of today: critical thinking.
1. Be Skeptical (of absolutely everything)
We can never take it for granted that what we read, see or hear from media sources of any kind is trustworthy. This caution applies to every scrap of news that comes our way, whether from traditional news organizations, blogs, online videos, Facebook updates or any other source.
The only rational approach, then, is skepticism. Businesses call the process of thoroughly checking out proposed deals due diligence, and it's a term that fits here, too. Let's bring due diligence to what we read, watch and hear.
I don't have to tell you that as their businesses have become less stable, the quality of traditional media organizations' content has been slipping. You've seen this for yourself, no doubt, if you still read your local newspaper. In theory, traditional journalism has procedures in place to avoid errors and wrong-headed coverage. But as discussed in the previous chapter, even the best journalists make factual mistakes -- sometimes serious ones -- and we don't always see the corrections.
Anyone who's been covered -- that is, been the subject of a journalist's attention -- knows that small flaws inevitably creep into even good journalists' work. And anyone sufficiently familiar with a complex topic or issue is likely to spot small, and sometimes large, mistakes in coverage of that topic. When small errors are endemic, as they've become in this era of hurry-up news, alert and rational people learn to have at least a small element of doubt about every assertion not backed up by unassailable evidence.
Matters are worse, and the audience response potentially more troubling, when journalists get big issues wrong. Most worrisome are errors of omission, where journalists fail to ask the hard but necessary questions of people in power. As noted earlier, the American press's near-unanimous bended-knee reporting during the run-up to the Iraq War was just one catastrophic recent example. Another was its apparent failure to notice the financial bubble that may still lead the world into a new Depression -- in fact, some financial journalists were among the most ardent promoters of the practices that inflated the bubble.
Both failures demonstrated that all-too-common activity that constitutes much of modern reporting: stenography for the powers that be. The Washington press corps and financial journalists, in particular, have shown again and again that they crave access to the rich and powerful more than they care about the quality of their journalism. This is not entirely surprising, but it's no coincidence that the best journalism is often done, as in the case of the Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington Bureau between 2002 and 2006, by newspaper reporters and editors who have less access to the people in charge and spend more time asking real questions of the people who work for the people in charge.
The Two-Sides Fallacy
Another reason to be skeptical is modern journalism's equally unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is backed up by fact and the other is not, or when the "sides" are overwhelmingly mismatched. This is often called "providing balance" by journalists who are typically afraid that one side in a political debate will accuse them of being biased in favor of the other side. It is not "balanced," of course, to quote a supposition or a blatant lie next to a proven fact and treat them as having equal weight.
To use an admittedly extreme example, when you're doing a story about the Holocaust, you don't need to balance it by quoting a neo-Nazi. Nor is it "showing balance" to quote a climate-change denier in every story about global warming -- not when scientists who study these issues have concluded with rare, near-universal fervor that climate change is not only real but presents an existential threat to civilization as we know it, if not to our species.
Nevertheless, in a mid-decade study the media researchers Jules and Maxwell Boykoff wrote that "53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations" while "35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming."
Sometimes the dissemblers are genuine believers in what they say, even if they marshal non-factual evidence for their arguments. Worse are the paid liars: the people whose jobs involve the manufacture of fear, doubt and uncertainty about truth. The tobacco industry's long and infamous record of denying and obfuscating the dangers of its products is just one example of a case where deep pockets were enough to forestall, but not ultimately prevent, wider public understanding.
Paid to Persuade
Even more insidious are the deceptive people who are selling things or ideas but hiding their tracks. If you follow any major issue you're encountering them, though you may not know it. Sometimes they engage in what's called astroturfing, the creation of phony grassroots campaigns designed to persuade the public and public officials. Many deceptions originate in "think tanks" and lobbying firms paid by political and corporate interests -- often their reports are widely quoted, generating commentary that often appears in newspapers and on TV, seeding blogs and comment threads, and generally trying to sell the products or ideas of the people paying them. I call this "opinion laundering." We'll never be able to stop it, in part because freedom of speech comes into play here, but at least we can try to spot it, as we'll discuss in the next chapter.
Whom do we trust? Sometimes, the wrong people. According to the public relations company Edelman's annual survey of trusted institutions, "people like me" are considered the most reliable, ranked above traditional media and other sources. This is a questionable attitude if taken too far. I trust a software-programmer friend to help me understand certain kinds of technology, but I don't have any idea whether he knows what he's talking about when it comes to wine or Middle East politics, and I factor that into our conversations.
The liars, dissemblers and opinion launderers are contemptible. But remember that they rely on credulous journalists who are too lazy or fearful to do their jobs properly. They also rely on us not asking questions ourselves. It's important to disappoint them.
2. Use Judgment: Don't be equally skeptical of everything
It's not surprising that more and more of us are giving in to the temptation to be cynical. Institutions we once trusted have proven unworthy, in an era when greed and zealotry have prompted lies and manipulation to further personal and political goals, and when the people who should have been pushing back the hardest -- including journalists -- have failed us in so many ways.
Unfortunately, generalized cynicism feeds the problem. If we lazily assume that everyone is pushing lies rather than trying to figure out who's telling the truth and who isn't, we give the worst people even more leeway to make things worse for the rest of us.
That's why it's insane to generalize about our information sources, and why I want to tear out what's left of my hair when I hear Big Media advocates talking about "those bloggers" as if bloggers were all the same -- or, for that matter, when I hear bloggers talking about "the evil MSM" (mainstream media) as if there were no differences among journalism organizations.
I'll discuss more in the next chapter some of the ways we can sort out what's true and what's false. The vital point here is that we have to give some level of trust to people who earn it. That doesn't mean we should turn over our brains to, say, the New York Times or the Economist, but it does mean that we should give them more credence than, say, the celebrity-driven tabloids that exist not to help us make good decisions, but rather to entertain us. Nor does it mean that we should rely entirely on what a single blogger, however talented, tells us about a narrow niche topic. It means exercising judgment.
According to danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft (and friend) who's become perhaps the preeminent expert on young people and social media, our kids have embedded this thinking into pretty much all the media they use. They assume, she told me, that "somebody's trying to tell them a story and trying to manipulate them."
To an extent, I share this attitude. When I see a commercial product in a movie, I take it for granted that the company selling the product has paid the film production company to place that product in the movie. I think of it as an advertisement embedded in the entertainment, no more or less.
But if adults tend to separate news media from mainstream entertainment media, boyd says teens have a naturally media-critical sense that they're being given a story for some particular reason and they know people are making money off of it. "But it's not a level of in-depth media criticism," she says, "and so there's just this sort of -- 'Hmm, do I trust this? I trust my friends and what they tell me much more than I'll trust what these entities are telling me.'"
Is that good or bad, or something in between? boyd worries that young people, for all their skepticism, aren't thinking things through in a truly critical way:
We don't live in an environment where teachers or parents or the people that are part of your adult world are actually helping you make sense of it and figure out how to be critically aware, but also to read between the lines to get something out of it. So as a result we end up throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Or we throw away all of it. We say -- all of it must be irrelevant to us. When in fact there is a lot that is relevant. And this is where we need to get media literacy actually at a baseline into everyday conversations, where it's not saying that everything should be just consumed or rejected, but something where you consume critically.
We'll come back to this later, in a broader discussion of what has been called "media literacy." Clearly, we need to ask ourselves what kind of society our kids will inherit if they don't trust or believe anyone but their friends, regardless of whether those friends are well informed.
3. Open Your Mind
The "echo chamber" effect -- our tendency as human beings to seek information that we're likely to agree with -- is well known. To be well informed, we need to seek out and pay attention to sources of information that will offer new perspectives and challenge our own assumptions, rather than simply reinforcing our current beliefs. Thanks to the enormous amount of news and analysis available on the Internet, this is easier than ever before.
The easiest way to move outside your comfort zone is simply to range widely. If you're an American, read Global Voices Online, a project that aggregates blogging and other material from outside North America. If you are a white American, stop by The Root and other sites offering news and community resources for and by African-Americans. Follow links in blogs you normally read, especially when they take you to sources with which the author disagrees.
Diversity can be a little harder to find in traditional media than online media, but there are numerous excellent publications focusing on different political points of view, different ethnic and national groups, and other types of differences. Spring for a subscription or pick up a recommended book on a topic you don't know about.
Whatever your worldview, you can find educated, articulate people who see things differently based on the same general facts. Sometimes they'll have new facts that will persuade you that they're right; more often, no doubt, you'll hold to the view you started with, but perhaps with a more nuanced understanding of the matter.
Challenge Your Own Assumptions
Have you ever changed your mind about something? I hope so.
Evidence matters. One of the most serious critiques of today's media ecosystem is how it enables people to seek out only what they believe, and to stick with that. Television news programming is especially insidious. As Jon Garfunkel, thoughtful commentator on new media at his Civilities.net site and longtime commenter on my blog, notes:
In October 2003, the Program of International Policy at the University of Maryland polled people about their perceptions of the Iraq war and corresponded it with the media they watched/read. The results aren't at all surprising:
"Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely."
Fox took the lead in featuring commentators with a particular ideological perspective; meanwhile, MSNBC has realigned its commentators so they have a mostly liberal worldview. By all means, you should constantly be looking for evidence to support your beliefs. However, it's also important to look for evidence that what you believe may not be true.
This means seeking out the people who will make your blood boil. Rush Limbaugh frequently infuriates me -- not because of what he believes, but because he takes such enormous liberties with the truth and uses language that seems designed to inflame, not enlighten. Even so, I regularly read and listen to what Limbaugh and his allies say, because sometimes they make good points, and I can learn something useful.
Going outside your comfort zone has many benefits. One of the best is knowing that you can hold your own in a conversation with people who disagree with you. However, the real value is in being intellectually honest with yourself, through relentless curiosity and self-challenge. That's what learning is all about. You can't understand the world, or even a small part of it, if you don't stretch your mind.
4. Keep Asking Questions
This principle goes by many names: research, reporting, homework, etc. The more important you consider a topic, the more essential it becomes to follow up on media reports about it.
The Web has already sparked a revolution in commerce, as potential buyers of products and services discovered relatively easy ways to learn more before purchasing. No one with common sense buys a car today based solely on a single advertisement; we do research on the Web and in other media, making comparisons and arming ourselves for the ultimate confrontation with the dealer.
There's a lesson in this caveat emptor behavior. We generally recognize the folly of making any major decisions about our lives based on one thing we've read, heard or seen. But do we also recognize why we need to dig deeply to get the right answers about life and citizenship issues that are important to us? We need to keep investigating, sometimes in major ways but more often in small ones, to ensure that we make good choices.
The rise of the Internet has given us, for the first time in history, a relatively easy way to dig deeper into the topics we care about the most. We can ask questions, and we can get intelligent answers to these questions.
Investigation has limits, of course. No one expects you to travel to Afghanistan to double-check the reporting from the New York Times (though we should maintain a healthy sense of skepticism about what even such reputable sources tell us). However, there's no excuse for not checking further into the closer-to-home information that informs your daily life.
Near the end of the Cold War, President Reagan frequently used the expression "Trust but verify" in relation to his dealings with the Soviet Union. He didn't invent the saying, but it was appropriate for the times, and it's an equally rational approach to take when evaluating the media we use today.
5. Learn Media Techniques
In a media-saturated society, it's important to know how digital media work. For one thing, we are all becoming media creators to some degree, as we post on Facebook, write blogs, comment, upload photos and videos, and so much more. Moreover, solid communications skills are becoming critically important for social and economic participation -- and we're not just talking about the reading and writing of the past.
Every journalism student I've taught has been required to create and operate a blog, because it is an ideal entry point into serious media creation. A blog can combine text, images, video and other formats, using a variety of "plug-in" tools, and it is by nature conversational. It is also a natively digital medium that adapts easily over time. Over a lifetime, most of us will pick up many kinds of newer media forms, or readapt older ones; a personal blog, for example, is a lot like an old-fashioned diary, with the major exception that most blogs are intended to be public.
Media-creation skills are becoming part of the educational process for many children in the developed world (less so for other children). In the U.S. and other economically advanced nations, teenagers and younger children are what some call "digital natives," though some of the most savvy users of digital technology are older people who have learned how to use it and who bring other, crucial skills -- most notably critical thinking and an appreciation of nuance -- to the table.
Young or old, learning how to snap a photo with a mobile phone is useful, but it's just as important to know all the possibilities of what you can do with that picture and to understand how it fits into a larger media ecosystem.
Also, it's essential to grasp the ways people use media to persuade and manipulate -- that is, how media creators push our logical and emotional buttons. Understanding this also means knowing how to distinguish a marketer from a journalist, and a non-journalistic blogger from one whose work does serve a journalistic purpose; all create media, but they have different goals.
All this is part of the broader grasp of how journalism works. The craft and business are evolving, but they still exert an enormous influence over the way people live. In one sense, some journalists are an example of a second-order effect of the marketers' trade, because sellers and persuaders do all they can to use journalists to amplify their messages.
Happily, as the mediasphere becomes ever more diverse, it is unleashing forces that ensure greater scrutiny of journalism. This helps us become more mediactive.
Media criticism was a somewhat sleepy field until bloggers came along, with a few publications and scholarly journals serving as the only serious watchdogs of a press that had become complacent and arrogant. Journalists themselves rarely covered each other, except in the way they covered celebrities of all kinds. This wasn't a conspiracy of silence, but it was taken as a given that only the most egregious behavior (or undeniable triumphs) were worthy of note in competitive journals or broadcasts.
Thankfully, bloggers, in particular, have become ardent examples of the new breed of media critics. Some are small-time jerks, dogs chasing cars because it's their instinct to do so. But many are the real thing: serious, impassioned critics who deserve respect for performing the watchdog role so important to the rest of us.
We all need to help each other sort out the information we can trust from that we shouldn't. This will be complicated, but if we get it right, the value will be immeasurable.