Make a resolution to improve your media literacy
By Mike McGann, Editor-in-Chief, The Times @mikemcgannpa
New year, same old … well, a lot of things.
We’ve been getting our butt kicked by a virus for two years, half the country thinks the other half are corrupt liars and we’re heading to a time when we won’t even agree whether the skies are blue and if the grass is green.
Of course, a lot of things cannot be fixed quickly or easily. But if 2022 can do one thing for us, it should be this: learning to use the internet and the media to sort fact from fiction.
Okay, this is where some of you will shake your head and describe “mainstream media”. And part of it is deserved. But understanding your media and how it works 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 across all levels of media in top editorial positions, from little ‘mom and pop’ outfits (like this one) to what was at the time the biggest house of magazine publishing in the world, I have a lot of knowledge about media and how to decode it.
So what can you trust?
It is sometimes complicated, but not as difficult as you might think.
So the mainstream media are right most of the time. If they are wrong, they are sued, face attacks from their 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 are owned by large corporations with rather conservative management. So while writers and editors may have a liberal bias (which doesn’t turn out the way you think), ownership and editors usually don’t.
Okay, the “liberal” bent of the media: it is true, but does not generally play the role of playmaker for liberal causes. In fact, quite the opposite. In order to appear “fair,” many – and earlier in my career I was probably guilty of that, too – are harder on Democrats and give Republicans the benefit of the doubt because they want to be seen as fair and impartial. . The GOP is aware of this and is using it to its advantage.
This is where we get a lot of today’s “two-sided” framing of things like the false claim that the elections were stolen, despite clear evidence that not only were they not stolen. , but that most elected officials say they were illegitimate, know they were not, and openly lie about it.
Another criticism – and fair – is that many stories are framed from an elitist perspective, completely out of sight. Too many types of media in DC and New York are coming from a handful of journalism schools such as Columbia or Missouri (or adapting their mindset to accommodate those who attended those schools), leaving a large part of the mainstream media with ivory tower perspective problems. As the secondary and audiovisual media are often inspired by The New York Times and The Washington Post, we get a spillover effect in terms of coverage and “catch” on the news.
So what to trust? This doesn’t sound selfish, but the local media are probably the most likely to be precise and reasonably fair. We have 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. One caveat: many traditional local newspapers have been taken over by hedge funds. While this doesn’t change the fact that they remain largely reliable, it does cause two problems: one, less news is covered due to massive reductions in staff and resources. Second, with so few people it means people are doubling, tripling and over their responsibilities, so mistakes are more likely. In all fairness, they will rush to make corrections and get it right.
But there is another concern: some “local” media are not at all local. Some are troll sites, with chunks of hacked local news content from this and similar sites mixed with propaganda. Some are run by a network of right-wing organizations, others by foreign actors and even governments. They exist in large part to make people question whether the regular media is right or fair.
How to tell them apart: do they have local ads? Not Google ads (you can see a little “X” in the upper right corner), but real local ads. If they don’t have the ads – and the liability that goes with it – the site may be bogus.
Also: Facebook and Twitter are not news sites. They are more like graffiti on a bathroom wall and should be treated as such. They may have real news, but you need to check the sourcing and ideally find multiple sources to confirm the information. And to be honest: everything on NextDoor is a garbage can fire – it’s a waste of time and otherwise perfectly good electrons.
The only thing I have learned from doing this since 1983 is that the real picture is like a tapestry. What is considered true and real depends on two things: how many threads you have to compose the image (again, more sources, higher news resolution) and perspective. Up close the picture may tell you one thing, but as you step back you can see an entirely different truth.
An informed consumer of news is the best informed.
End of class.
May I wish you all a happy – and much healthier – 2022.
We will return to our normal, sarcastic coverage of local and state politics in this space in two weeks.