At Large: How do you know?

At Large: How do you know?

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The young woman said she mistrusted what the media do. All the media. She did not, I learned later, mistrust James Cameron’s film version of the Titanic’s sinking. Go figure.

The context for her declaration was a discussion about what media consumers, particularly of the broadcast, cable, and blogosphere media, could rely upon in the stream of cyber-stuff.

What’s worrisome is that it is easier to accept what one hears and reads as fact or truth without troubling to distinguish between the real and the unreal. This is particularly problematic for parents and teachers who must guard young, inexperienced, beginning thinkers among the web sites, the docu-dramas, the hype, the bombast, and the hyper-opinion that flood our lives.

Most journalists, and I am one, share the young woman’s skepticism. We do not, however, share her gullibility, and we do not despair, as she did.

Information. Data. News. Truth. Opinion. There is so much of it, so many outlets for it, so much need for high quality and reliable examples of it, that it’s a crying shame there is no easy way to distinguish the good and useful from the bad and worthless. Brian Stelter, writing in the New York Times Sunday, reminds us that Eric E. Schmidt, chief of Google, distributor of much of the nonsense, referred to it as a “cesspool.”

Mr. Stelter quotes Brooks Jackson, the director of FactCheck.org: “The ‘news’ that is not fit to print gets through to people anyway these days, through 24-hour cable gasbags, partisan talk radio hosts and chain e-mails, blogs and Web sites such as WorldNetDaily or Daily Kos. What readers need now, we find, are honest referees who can help ordinary readers sort out fact from fiction.”

Mr. Stelter profiled Snopes.com, one of the oldest and most popular fact-checking services on the web. David and Barbara Mikkelson operate Snopes. It and its truth-searching sister sites are invaluable, but ultimately, the responsibility for picking and choosing lies with you, the consumers.

And it is difficult work, distinguishing between truth and untruth.

“Especially in politics, most everything has infinite shades of gray to it, but people just want things to be true or false,” Mr. Stelter quotes Mr. Mikkelson, attempting to explain why rumor and untruth attract such a large audience. “In the larger sense, it’s people wanting confirmation of their world view.”

Discovering reliable information and journalism is not so terribly different from the familiar process of shopping for, say, a used car. Cruising the Internet, cruising the newsstand, surfing the channels: but imagine for a moment that you are cruising the Auto Mile. A red car catches your eye. It’s on a dealer’s lot. There are pennants snapping in the breeze. There are big smiles on the salesman’s face. You stop. He talks. You get out your checkbook and you buy.

No, of course you don’t. You don’t stop just anywhere. Mostly you go to dealers whose good reputations you know about. You go because someone recommended the place, or because you had a good experience with that dealer or that model. You know quite a bit about what you want and what it’s worth.

You need to shop for news and information, data and opinion, even truth, the same way. You go to trustworthy outlets, and not necessarily to the Comment section of the newspaper’s website. You discriminate. This makes sense, that doesn’t.

What helps you, the information consumers, to sift through all this and all the rest on TV, in national and international publications, and on the web?

Be on your toes. Know what you are looking for — news, information, data, opinion — know what distinguishes one from the other, and know what it is you have found when you find it. Training kids to shop critically for information is a key part of life’s curriculum, as taught by parents.

Shop for sources of information critically. There are signs that mark responsible media outlets. Do they declare themselves? Do they tell you who they are, with bylines and mastheads listing ownership and editorial responsibility? Do they distinguish news from opinion in their pages and identify sources of data? Are they significant businesses, in your community, or in the community of web sites — much harder to get your arms around, of course? Or is it a one-man or one-woman show? A blog? Do they spend money to find and deliver information, data, or opinion? Gathering and publishing information takes money, lots of it. Financially successful organizations and web media spend money to create their information products, and that makes their products better.

Do you know the people behind the information source, or do you know their reputations? Can you approach the web, or broadcast, or print publishers of the information you find? Can you call them, or e-mail them, or write them with questions about the provenance of the information? Will they reply? Do they care about their record?

You want media types to care about the record, and their records in particular. If such news and opinion sources are the ones on which you depend, there is little reason to despair.