ONE OF THE BIG NEWS stories of the year has been the rise of “fake news.” The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016. This is because Donald Trump’s election has the media establishment and media consumers reeling. As a candidate, he lied openly and constantly, and he apparently suffered very little in the way of consequences because of it.
We are living in an age of bullshit. Reputable journalism establishments are now competing with small websites with no standards, no ethical principles, and often, no sort of accountability. As a (marginal) member of the media, and as someone who was trained in journalism, I have some perspective that I can offer the average media consumer on how to survive the age of Trump. It’s going to require some work on your part, but believe it or not, there is a way to wade through the bullshit.
1. Don’t get distracted by the outrage cycle.
Here are two Tweets from Donald Trump this week:
Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2016
In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 27, 2016
Both of these Tweets are probably going to make you either squeal with glee, or die of an atomic facepalm. But look: Outrage is going to be easy to come by over the next four years. Yes, the “millions of people” Tweet is, objectively, total nonsense, and flag-burning is a nothing issue designed to fire up feelings of wounded patriotism among Trump’s base (George H.W. Bush made it a wedge issue back in 1989, too).
But it’s taking up time from some actual, really legitimate scandals that Trump is facing. Like, how his daughter keeps going to meetings with world leaders, even though this creates some serious conflict of interest problems (which there are already a ton of, anyway). Or that he just settled the Trump University fraud lawsuits. Or how there’s been a rise in hate crimes since he won the election. Or how there are recounts under way, and how voter suppression — not voter fraud — was actually a pretty big problem in 2016. Or how his cabinet is turning out to have a lot of people in it who are either racists, or have a history of enabling racists to achieve their own goals. Or how Fox News is saying that his tax plan will actually raise taxes on the middle class. Or how he still hasn’t released the taxes that he promised to release multiple times.
Donald Trump is a master of the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” style of publicity. Whether it’s because he’s doing it intentionally, or just because he has an instinct for it, he knows how to get the type of attention he wants. He’ll keep doing it (because that’s who he is), and the media will keep reporting on it (because that’s their job), but don’t let it distract you. There are real issues we need to worry about in the coming four years. Indulging in feelings of cozy outrage is not a good use of your time.
2. Stop looking for unbiased news sources.
Here’s a secret about media bias: it’s everywhere. If there is a news source that you trust as “unbiased,” then guess what? It’s biased. You just happen to agree with the bias. Some news sources are better at balancing out their bias than others, but it’s there for everyone. Because every news source has to choose what it reports on (there are just too many stories out there for any one publication to report on everything), and this in itself reveals a news source’s priorities and agendas.
There is no such thing as “unbiased.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as good reporting. It doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as fair reporting. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t use the knowledge of that bias to your advantage.
3. Identify the bias of the source and of the writer.
The New York Times is center-left. The Washington Post is center-right. The Guardian is left wing. The Wall Street Journal is conservative. RT is pro-Russia. Al Jazeera is sympathetic to the Muslim world. This website, Matador, tries to include a lot of perspectives, but is ultimately a site for travelers and for people who view themselves as world citizens — which means we tend to have a more global perspective (albeit with writers mostly coming from North America and Europe). Generally speaking, we’re less nationalistic and more progressive.
Next, try and do a quick glance at the writer. What do they usually write about? What does their slant seem to usually be? I, for example, tend to be kinda Bernie Sanders-ish in my politics. You should probably know that when you read my stuff. If you know a writer and a publication’s bias, you can mentally defend yourself against being too susceptible to what they’re writing.
4. Look for good reporting — not just for good commentary.
I was trained as a reporter. I currently work as a blogger. There is a world of difference between these two things. A reporter goes out into the world, talks to people, uncovers things, and conducts investigations. They uncover stories that no one else is covering. They bring new facts to the table.
Bloggers can be reporters, but most of my work is done from my office in this New Jersey seaside town. I read a lot, I think about things a lot, and I try and share my thoughts and insights and experiences with my readers. Hopefully they find these insights useful. But I am not uncovering many new stories. I am not (usually) reporting.
This is in part because reporting requires a lot more time and money, and if you want to make money off of the internet, you have to produce a lot of content as quickly as possible. It’s an business model which lends itself more to thinkpieces, to “curation,” and to regurgitation of reporting done by other sources. This isn’t without value: ideas need to spread, context needs to be provided, and thoughtful perspectives are valuable. But it is not reporting.
A similar thing is true of television news. Cable news has its own form of blogger — the “pundit.” A pundit is a person who is either very knowledgeable or very entertaining and is able to discuss a wide range of things. They are not without value. But they are not (always) reporting. Reporters are the people who are uncovering new information, who are interviewing people, and who are breaking actual stories (and when I say “breaking,” I mean actually unearthing new material, not just acknowledging the eternal unfolding of the universe, which seems to be how CNN defines the word).
TV news has some good reporting — Vice on HBO is pretty solid — but TV, like the internet, has a business model that emphasizes lowering costs and increasing entertainment, which is not ideal for producing good journalism.
Instead, look to newspapers. Subscription-based newspapers are still the best source of reporting in the country and the world. Look to publicly-funded news outlets, like PBS, NPR, or the BBC. They all have the funding to do real reporting. And please: whenever you can, pay for your news. It’s worth it.
5. Look for grammar errors, inconsistencies, and dumb mistakes.
Everyone occasionally makes mistakes, even titans of the reporting world like the New Yorker. But if you notice a lot of grammatical errors, if you recognize some obvious falsehoods, if you see certain misuses of words or perhaps imprecise language, or if the same word is spelled differently twice within the piece, then it’s telling you something.
Specifically, it’s telling you that not many people read the piece before it got published. In newspapers, there are always several people with their eyes on a piece. The journalist is the first, obviously, but then a copy-editor checks for grammar and style. There is also often be a fact-checker who confirms all quotes and statements of fact. Then also an editor who would decide whether the final piece was publishable or not. So there were a lot fewer mistakes, and there were more people to catch grammatical, stylistic, or factual errors in the text.
If you see an excess of mistakes in an article, it’s telling you that this article did not receive that same attention. Which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad information. But it should put up a red flag.
6. Do not automatically believe anything by a source you don’t trust.
If you don’t recognize the source that you’re reading, it’s best to take whatever it’s saying with a grain of salt. This isn’t to say most sources are bullshit. It’s just to say that, if they are new to you, you don’t know what their MO is. You don’t know if they make their money off of clicks or off of subscriptions or off of a grant from some unknown organization or government.
A useful tool for checking up on a source is Emergent.info. It was developed by data analysts at Columbia University to track rumors and news items that are circulating on social media, but which may not have been verified just yet.
Treat new news sources like you would a new friend: with cautious optimism, but with a recognition that trust can only be earned with time.