For years, I’ve advised my niece that one of her greatest responsibilities as a young adult is to stay abreast of the news and know what is going on in her country and the world.
I know she agrees. But I hadn’t seen her act on the advice. Then one day, she just blurted it out.
“The media is biased. Honestly, I don’t know who to trust.”
My heart sank a bit. I couldn’t fully disagree. What if her despair was held by an entire generation? What about my own generation?
Was the media always biased?
I thought back to when I was a young adult. Keeping abreast of the news was just easier. You subscribed to a newspaper, maybe watched the morning or evening news. Working in the investment business, I subscribed to the Wall Street Journal. On Sundays, I read the New York Times and maybe picked up the Economist.
I never really questioned media bias. Sure, the New York Times was more left leaning, the Wall Street Journal more right. But these organizations and their journalists have the highest standards of objectivity, fact checking and ethical standards–their reputations depend on it. They separate opinion pieces from news sections. They print retractions if necessary; errors are a rare exception, not the rule.
I realize I first questioned media bias in the early days of CNBC. With Jim Kramer performing acrobatics around stock buy and sell recommendations, the cable news channel’s bias (short-term trading, high ratings) was pretty obvious.
CNBC regularly streamed on the TV-lined walls of the investment advisory firms I’d visit as part of my job. Their views permeated every conversation. With a career focused on promoting long-term investment strategies, countering short-term investing bias became core to my work. When my focus evolved to international investing, countering U.S. “home country” bias became the next challenge.
The media influences the public; public wants influence what the media provides. It’s a symbiotic relationship. But at least we understood the game.
It’s now a whole new era– news and “fake news;” facts and “alternative facts.”
So in seeking to guide my niece, I started asking myself basic questions.
- What is the media?
Media is defined as the main means of mass communication (broadcasting, publishing, and the internet) regarded collectively.
Platforms have changed everything. A friend’s 20-something son said that Reddit is his sole source for news; over 40% of American adults cited getting their news via Facebook (source: Pew Research Center).
- Who is a journalist?
As the definition of the media broadens, the question of who is and is not a journalist gets tricky. And maybe it’s the wrong question.
According to the American Press Institute, a journalist “places the public good above all else and uses certain methods– the foundation of which is a discipline of verification– to gather and assess what he or she finds.”
My self-published blog posts qualify as media, but I’m not a journalist. I openly share a viewpoint and opinion. I don’t conduct extensive interviews or provide the full context to a story. That said, I try to use good journalistic practices– backing up statements with facts, disclosing sources, and revealing my biases.
- What is the journalistic standard of objectivity?
A journalist cannot ever be completely neutral or objective. Why? Because the journalist is a human being. The same applies to a doctor, lawyer or investment advisor. Each has to make decisions as part of his job. Past experience will always influence.
While a person cannot be completely objective, journalistic methods can be. There can be consistent methods of testing information so that cultural or personal biases don’t impact a conclusion.
So what ultimately did I tell my niece?
- To accept that the ongoing multi-sensory bombardment of news from various sources– most trustworthy, some untrustworthy; some well-researched, some sensational– is our reality.
- To be a skeptic, but to not be afraid, untrusting, or anti-media. Do not see the media as the enemy; they are her partners in battle.
- To put on her armour and practice using an important weapon. It’s one we’ve had all along, but it’s barely had a name: Media Literacy.
Media literacy is simply critical thinking. It’s choosing to read beyond a headline or photo. It’s making not just a binary choice– do I agree or disagree? It’s choosing what in an article to agree with, what to disagree with, and why. It’s considering the incentives, biases and sources of the journalist (used in the broadest term) and the organizations he might be beholden to. It’s researching others’ views on a topic, across various forms of communication. And finally, it’s effectively communicating your conclusions, and what got you there.
Media literacy is the 21st century skill we all need to improve— as students, workers, consumers and citizens.
A recent Stanford research study of middle school, high school and college students highlighted the ways students are struggling to judge the credibility of the news stories they read online. Media from the Wall Street Journal to Teen Vogue reported on the findings. And some savvy teachers are now bringing media literacy lessons into schools.
But I was still feeling unarmed in my own media literacy battle.
Who are these unknown publishers I see across my social media feeds? What should I know about them? Should I read their content at all?
My brain was swimming. It yearned for a simple visual— a chart or grid, perhaps— that would help me process and communicate my thoughts.
And then social media gave me a gift.
I’ve never met Colorado-based lawyer, Vanessa Otero. But her brain and mine would be friends.
I found Vanessa’s sketch of the landscape of News Quality in my Facebook feed. It’s simple, colorful and shareable. It packs the punch of a meme or tweet, but is less substantive than a long article few might read.
And in its substantive simplicity, it’s brilliant!
News Quality (Source: www.AllGeneralizationsAreFalse.com)
I encourage you to read Vanessa’s “boring-ass article about her methodology.” As much as her graphic, I love the (4,400 word) description of her thought process, and that she’s open to legitimate feedback and edits appropriately.
Do I think all of the placements are perfect? No. Might she be missing some news sources? Sure.
But she’s given me a tool that I can use in my media literacy battle.
I need these weapons. I’m a self-described connector of ideas and people across the world— so swearing off television news and social media is simply not an option.
I have to learn how to better deal with it. We all do.
So I’ll end this blog post the same way Vanessa ended her own.
“Thanks for reading and thinking.”