A few years ago, a young woman in the second row of the audience told the members of a media panel that she mistrusted what she read in the papers and saw on TV. The point of the discussion was to consider what consumers might rely on in the stream of stuff to be found in print, on the air, and in cyberspace.
The young woman who announced her distrust explained that she found it difficult to distinguish between the real and the unreal herself. She, a mother perhaps, or a teacher, despaired of guarding young, inexperienced, beginning thinkers among the web sites, the docu-dramas, the hype, and the hyper-opinion that we wade through daily. Most journalists are similarly troubled.
Today, there is so much information, data, opinion, news, and now blogs, not to mention web sites such as Facebook and Myspace, but there is no easy way to distinguish the good and useful from the bad and worthless, or even dangerous. And, ultimately, the responsibility for picking and choosing lies with the consumers.
Discovering reliable journalism is not so terribly different from the familiar process of shopping for, say, a used car. You cruise the Internet or the newsstand, you surf the channels. Something catches your eye.
But, imagine for a moment that you are cruising the Auto Mile. You're not looking for news, you're looking for a new car. A red, low-slung sports model catches your eye. It's on a dealer's lot. There are pennants snapping in the breeze. There is a big smile on the salesman's face. You stop. He talks. You get out your checkbook, and you buy.
Get real. Of course you don't. You don't stop just anywhere. 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 before. You know quite a bit about what you want and what it's worth. You want a good car and a good deal.
Consumers need to shop for news and information, data and opinion, even truth, the same way.
What could help consumers, to sift through all this and all the rest on TV, in national and international publications, and on the web?
First, 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 they need is a key part of life's curriculum.
Second, shop for sources of information critically. There are signs which 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? Do they spend money to find and deliver information, data, or opinion? Fortunately, or not, gathering and publishing information regularly takes money, lots of it. Financially successful organizations and web media spend money to create their information products, and that makes their products better. Usually.
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?
If you wouldn't buy the flashy, overpriced car from the toothy salesman, why get taken in by the nonsense passing for news, information, or opinion, however it's delivered?
The low spot in our long dirt road achieved a new low Tuesday. That's when the eight days of rain ended. Actually there are two bad spots along the road, one at the beginning where you turn off the paved road, and one about half way in where the road dips beneath the grade of the surrounding land. On the land plan, an area adjacent to this part of the road says "seasonal pond." It doesn't say what season, but Tuesday, it was clear that the surveyor meant this one. Apparently, a pair of mallards determined to raise their offspring in our neighborhood have delayed parenthood for the 16 years or so we've lived at the end of this road, until the "seasonal pond" identified by the surveyors materialized in our road. And, Tuesday, here they were, afloat, scouting out the expanding boundaries of their new home for the site of the birthing room they've been planning. I know that deer, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, mice, have been procreating to beat the band in the neighborhood of our house, and I've adjusted, but ducks, that's asking a lot.