Friday, June 2, 2017

How To Trust News!

The Omnivore's parents got back from the great state of Alabama where The Omnivore's relatives live on a for-real farm(!). The discussion there is not--and cannot--be political for what The Omnivore will describe as "obvious reasons." However, a dispatch from The Omnivore's beloved and Trump-Voting Alabama relatives suggested at at least someone up there felt that none of the news could be watched because "it was all biased."

The Omnivore is, it turns out, an Internationally Recognized Expert in #FakeNews*, and therefore wants to perform a service here: Telling you how / how much to trust the news you watch.

So here's how to understand news-media.

1. Bias Doesn't Mean Lying

Yes, all human beings are biased. Yes, that sometimes covertly or overtly creeps into (or is put directly into) news (or "news"). However, just because you can detect bias in a story does not in any way mean the story is a lie.

One of the greatest and most toxic successes of the right over the past decade was to convince its viewers that the "liberal media" was lying and that you knew that because of detectable "bias." Over the past decade media has become more partisanly biased--partially because the populace has--partially driving that phenomena.

Watchers have also become hyper-attuned to bias, detecting it in trace-amounts and then using that to dismiss articles they don't like. In this mode, bias-detection becomes a kind of psychological defense mechanism: I don't like the story . . . let me see . . . A-HA! Bias! I can ignore the lying media!

However, so long as the outlet you are watching employs real journalistic practices, bias is okay. This means you can question the story's conclusions and purported importance--but should not consider the whole thing made up / fabricated.

PRO-TIP: Turn down your bias-detector. Bias isn't what's important in "believing the news."

2. What Are Journalistic Practices?

Journalism at its most basic means:

  • A reporter answers the basic Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why questions about a given story or event.
  • The article is fact-checked by actual, fact-checkers. These are people who go through the article before publication and try to determine if anything stated as a fact is real or not.
  • The article is reviewed by an editor. The editor's job isn't just to correct spelling--it's also to protect the reputation of the outlet. This stops wild-claims, nonsense, and conspiracy theory from being published.
  • The outlet itself has a reputation they want to protect. The outlet stands to lose from publishing conspiracy theory (note: if your outlet is the National Enquirer, this obviously doesn't apply--hence, they are not doing actual journalism--see how that works?)
Places that employ real journalism are places like Fox News, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, The Atlantic, and so on.

In other words, the "Mainstream Media."

Places that do not are things like "Fox and Friends" or "The Daily Show." These may or may not have the above structures in place--but they are not doing what we would describe as normal journalism. As such, you should consider those interesting or even informative--but not "news."

PRO-TIP: Get your news from two mainstream media sources. Try Fox and CNN. Get it from the actual news show and not the talky-bits.

3. Mistakes / Errors / Even Lies Don't Destroy A Reporting Outlet

It is common practice to point to a story that is either contradicted elsewhere, shown to be wrong, or, in rare cases, shown to be fabricated. This is used to "discredit" the outlet in the eyes of the watcher. This is a mistake. If you are referring to a major media outlet that does, literally, 100's of stories a day on a global scale, there are going to be mistakes, "mistakes," and (although it better be rare) obvious, intentional malfeasance. The bar for the last is high. A report that contradicts one on another media isn't evidence of lying. 

You must always assume that there is an error rate in the media you watch and plan accordingly. In the case of a massive tragedy or major event (such as the Sandy Hook shooting), don't trust frantic reporting for the first 48 hours. Wait for the real journalistic practices to kick in before drawing strong conclusions.

PRO-TIP: Stop believing "the mainstream media lies" because of story X-Y-or-Z.  If you are going to hold that opinion about an outlet, be ready to back it up with sourcing from people who actually know and do journalism. This will not go well for you.

4. Anonymous Sources Are Legitimate

When dealing with a mainstream outlet, Anonymous Sources are not made-up news. Sorry. In every case: 1. The source is known to the journalist and usually their editor. These are actual people in the proper positions with reputations to protect (between them and the journalists). They may spin the story--but if they outright lie they'll never be quoted again. They don't want that. 2. The story is corroborated with other sources that don't know each other. Just because senior staffer Bob tells you something, that's usually not enough. You go to other senior staffers and see if they'll back the story. If no one will? You don't publish it.

PRO-TIP: If Anonymous Sources are saying things you don't like, consider that the most likely reason is that things are actually happening that they don't like either (usually the same thing YOU don't like) and they are reporting on them as an attempt to fix it.

5. Not All Sources Are Equally Reliable

The more biased an outlet is, the (generally) less reliable. This isn't because they are lying about their stories. It's because how they structure, choose to report / not-report, or focus the story will be driven by that bias. Some outlets, like, have a literal, printed mission statement about making their readers angry. That's a red-flag.

It doesn't mean they're lying -- Breitbart does actual reporting -- it just means they are so biased that if the article doesn't "make you angry" it doesn't make it into the reporting. That should be viewed with great skepticism (unless your goal is to get politically angry and you are otherwise having a hard time with that). 

How you view base and reliability is going to be a source of much debate. However, please consider this as a starting place:

If you read a bunch of blogs, consider this:

NOTE: The Omnivore finds it easy to disagree with many individual ratings here--but you should be aiming for at least the center.

If you are watching the Talk-Show News, the Omnivore finds this rating at least moderately sensible looking:

PRO-TIP: Triangulate. Have a few go-to sources and see if they are saying the same things. If they are saying different things, that is worth looking into.

6. Finally, Stop Falling For #FakeNews

You need to stop falling for conspiracy theory, anything you see on social media that is a "bombshell" or "blockbuster." You need to stop believing that stories are breaking constantly which will "change everything." It's not that these never happen, it's that unless you are a very savvy media consumer, it is difficult to tell what's real and what's not.

For example: Jim Comey, the former FBI director is going to address Congress next week. According to mainstream sources, he will say that Trump told him to back off the Trump-Russia investigation. This is all legitimate reporting. It's all probably true.

In fact, it--or something so close to it as to be indistinguishable--most likely happened.

Does this mean Trump is definitely a criminal? No. It does not. Does it mean he broke the law with "obstruction of justice"--no, not (necessarily, The Omnivore is not a lawyer) in the technical legal sense. Does it mean Trump is going to be impeached? Definitely not.

However, the idea that Trump didn't tell Comey to see if he could find his way to dialing down the investigation, that Comey felt pressured by the leader of the free world telling him that--in private--is lying to yourself.

Also, for what it's worth--while the story as presented doesn't mean Trump is a Russian spy (or even colluding with Russia) it definitely isn't good and isn't normal. If you don't believe that, you're also lying to yourself.


The basic conclusion here is that (a) you should be watching the mainstream media--the actual news programs. You should be going to ABC, NBC, and, like Yahoo News or something like that. It is fine to watch Fox News so long as you watch the real news programs and also watch, like CNN.

You should also not "dismiss news" that makes you uncomfortable or unhappy. That is something that has been trained into a divided populace and has made everyone more susceptible to #fakenews.

A Final Note: The Omnivore has heard that he is "hard to understand." He is, as always, available for questions and would love to clarify anything that is unclear.

* This isn't actually a lie--or an exaggeration. The Omnivore has gotten asked for thoughts on the media, reporting, journalism, and fake news from multiple US and outside-the-US countries and media. A Japanese report / author flew into town with his assistant to interview The Omnivore for his book as recently as yesterday. Yes, this is all patently absurd--but yes, it's also real. Trust The Omnivore.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much. I am in constant argument with friends on social media who now say all our MSM news is lying to you. I can't go there. These same people are now thinking sites like Zero Hedge is the real truth teller. This is getting to be a real problem and I hope people like you will continue to publish how this whole news business is supposed to work.