Make a resolution to improve your media literacy
By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times @mikemcgannpa
New year, same old… well, lots of things.
We’ve had our butts kicked by a virus for two years half the country thinks the other half are corrupt liars and we’re headed for a time where we won’t even agree that heaven is blue and if the grass is green.
Certainly, many things are not quickly or easily repairable. But if 2022 can bring us one thing, it should be this: learning to use the internet and the media to sort fact from fiction.
Ok, this is where some of you will shake your head and denounce “mainstream media”. And some of that is deserved. But understanding your media and how they work is the start of being able to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to news and information.
As someone who has worked at all levels of media in leadership positions, from little ‘mom and pop’ outfits (like this one) to what was at the time the largest magazine publishing company to the world, I have a lot of ideas about media and how to decode it.
So what can you trust?
It is sometimes complicated, but not as difficult as one would think.
Let’s face it, the mainstream media are right most of the time. If they are wrong, they are prosecuted, face attacks from competitors and those they cover and they lose audience and therefore advertising revenue. They have a financial incentive to get it right as much as humanly possible. Moreover, despite claims about “liberal” media, virtually all media is owned by large corporations with rather conservative management. So while writers and publishers may have a liberal bias (which doesn’t pan out the way you think), ownership and publishers usually don’t.
OK, the “liberal” bent of the media: that’s true, but it doesn’t usually play out as a cheerleader for liberal causes. In fact, quite the opposite. In order to appear “fair”, many – and earlier in my career I was probably guilty of this as well – are tougher on Democrats and give Republicans the benefit of the doubt because they want to be seen as fair and unbiased. . The GOP is aware of this and uses it to its advantage.
This is where we get a lot of the ‘both sides’ framing today on things like the false claim that the election was stolen, despite clear evidence that not only was it not stolen , but that most elected officials claim it was illegitimate, know it wasn’t, and openly lie about it.
Another – and fair – criticism is that many stories are framed from an elitist, completely disconnected point of view. Too many DC and New York media types come from a handful of journalism schools such as Columbia or Missouri (or adapt their mindset to fit those who have attended those schools), leaving a large part of mainstream media with ivory tower perspective issues. As the secondary and audiovisual media are often inspired by The New York Times and The Washington Postwe get a trickle-down effect in terms of coverage and “takes” on the news.
So what to trust? Without wanting to sound selfish, local media are probably the most likely to be accurate and reasonably fair. We need to see you at the local supermarket, school events etc. – we know our advertisers (and many of our readers) personally. It creates a level of accountability that you don’t see in many forms of media. A caveat: many traditional local newspapers have been taken over by hedge funds. While that doesn’t change the fact that they remain largely reliable, it does cause two problems: First, less news coverage due to massive staff and resource cuts. Second, with so few people, it means people are doubling, tripling, and more on their responsibilities, so mistakes are more likely. In fairness, they will rush to make corrections and get it right.
But there is another concern: some “local” media are not local at all. Some are troll sites, with pieces of pirated local news content from this site and similar sites mixed in with propaganda. Some are run by a network of right-wing organizations, others by foreign actors and even governments. They exist largely to make people question whether mainstream media is accurate or right.
How to tell them apart: do they have local ads? Not Google ads (you can see a little “X” in the top right corner), but real local ads. If they don’t have ads – and the liability for that – the site may be fake.
Also: Facebook and Twitter are not news sites. They look more like graffiti on a bathroom wall and should be treated as such. They may have real news, but you need to check the supply and ideally find multiple sources to confirm the information. And to be honest: everything on NextDoor is trash fire – it’s a waste of time and perfectly good electrons.
The one thing I’ve learned doing this since 1983 is that the real picture is like a tapestry. What is considered true and real depends on two things: the number of threads you have to create the image (again, more sources, higher resolution of information) and perspective. Up close the image may tell you one thing, but from a distance you can see an entirely different truth.
An educated consumer of news is the best informed.
End of the lecture.
May I wish you all a happy – and much healthier – 2022.
We’ll return to our normal, sneaky coverage of local and state politics in this space in two weeks.