What is the paramount requirement for navigating the information age in which we live today? What is the irreducible minimum skill that our children must learn and that we and they must practice all our lives long, in this media-mad life of personal and commercial promotion?
A while ago, a young woman speaking from the audience at a discussion of the changing news media, said she utterly mistrusted what the news and information services — all of them, including print newspapers, online information and news sites, broadcast and cable, and social media of all sorts — do. She did not, I learned later, mistrust James Cameron’s film version of the Titanic’s sinking. That was history, she thought. Go figure.
The discussion topic considered what media consumers could rely upon in the overwhelming stream of incoming stuff.
What’s worrisome is that it is easier to accept what one hears and reads as fact or truth without troubling to discriminate. And, in this single context, discrimination on the part of the reader or listener, is not only desirable, it is critical. 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 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, or at rock bottom, to recognize the point of view or the promotional attributes of any sort of communication. Eric E. Schmidt, former chief of Google, distributor of much of the nonsense, referred to the online universe his successful company exploits as a “cesspool.”
What passes for news these days arrives interlarded with promotion, Facebook likes, Twitter observations, and sponsored posts, even on the print pages and web sites of responsible publications desperate to keep their heads above water. Smart people yearn for trustworthy intermediaries to sort through the mess.
But, that sort of guide to what one hears and sees becomes more illusory as each day passes and each new digital innovation strives for monetization. Ultimately — and exhaustingly — the responsibility for picking and choosing lies with you, the consumers. Critical watching, reading, hearing, thinking and a discriminating approach to the information age — these are the indispensable tools. And it is difficult work, distinguishing between truth and untruth.
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. And, even in these apparently reliable venues, you discriminate.
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. They hire thinkers, writers with judgment and curiosity, and they give them license to get at information and pass it along. They do not pay by the click. Google earns that way.
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 email 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, but every reason to be vigilant.