November (Not April) Fools!

img_0072

Fake news is in the actual news lately and it’s about time people started paying attention. It can be especially harmful when major influencers repeat these stories, as people tend to absorb information quickly before moving on to the next story. Once planted in the mind of a 21st century media consumer, falsehoods are not easily supplanted with facts, especially when the story falls in line with a person’s already pre-conceived mindset. We need to hold our sources accountable when they get things wrong.

A week before the election, FOX News pundit and talk radio celebrity Sean Hannity was live on his radio show that boasts an audience of 12.5 million listeners when he received an email linking to The Gateway Pundit website and wondered aloud if what he was reading was true.

“It says that Michelle Obama had deleted Hillary tweets from her timeline.” Then presumably he asked one of his staff, “Did you ever check that out?”

He moved on but later brought it up again and was reading some sort of communiqué on air when an unknown female voice chimed in: “Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren have both unfollowed Hillary Clinton, as well as scrubbing their timeline of tweets about her.”

Of course, none of it was true. And Hannity even tweeted out an apology and recognized the story as fake later that day. But that hadn’t stopped at least a dozen outlets from reporting it and countless people sharing it on social media. The Gateway Pundit post alone about was shared on Facebook 6970 times and on Twitter 4608 times. Incidentally, it’s still on their website. No update, no retraction, no mention that it’s a complete fabrication. In fact, of the 5 sites I visited that reported it, only one had added an update noting that the story was false.

This activity is not surprising at all. These politically inflammatory sites and their social media acolytes often engage in spreading wild mistruths which one site picks up from another. Then on to another and another.

img_0073

Too many people get their news from sources like this.

Remember the Weekly World News supermarket tabloid? These are its digital equivalent. While there are likely several hundred, if not thousands of these sites of every persuasion and genre, one type recently came up relevant to the U.S. election season.

 

Buzzfeed News recently ran a story [Warning: biased headline ahead] about a slew of pro-Trump sites being run by young men in Veles, Macedonia simply for cash-for-clicks profit. Accuracy doesn’t matter, as long as people are clicking through from a Facebook post to the actual website. According to the article:

“Most of the posts on these sites are aggregated, or completely plagiarized, from fringe and right-wing sites in the U.S. The Macedonians see a story elsewhere, write a sensationalized headline, and quickly post it to their site. Then they share it on Facebook to try to generate traffic.”

It’s not just Macedonian teens using this model. Plenty of U.S. based sites operate using the same methodology. Which is why we see several versions of the same fake story several times over the course of a 12-36 hour period of any bit of news being “Breaking”.

And this is by no means limited to the political news genre, that’s just the obviously hot commodity of 2016. Young adults making money from these sites also report that personal health websites also are generating a lot of revenue from users in the U.S. One 16-year-old that Buzzfeed spoke to claimed that he and his partner run a lucrative health website. “They launched the site in early 2016 and it’s now averaging 1 million page views a month.”

Another young man who gave up on his political site because he didn’t launch it early enough in the campaign season says he abandoned it, “in order to focus on another, more successful site he says that’s focused on health and well-being.” The article continues, “He estimated there are ‘thousands’ of health-related sites being run out of Veles.”

Fake health news is just as damaging as fake political news, so let this be a warning if you have “liked” a lot of health related sites on Facebook; make sure you are taking time to check your facts.

Over the past week many have posited that Facebook itself is largely responsible for the spread of fake news as a lot of it is widely disseminated though their platform. Mark Zuckerberg has been wildly denying that the sharing of fake news on his website contributes in any way to influencing people’s opinions. This stands in stark contrast to Facebook’s message to advertisers that its platform is greatly responsible for influencing many people’s purchasing habits. But that’s another story.

There are lots of reasons why major news outlets can fall victim to fake news. First and foremost is the immediacy of news. It really is instantaneous. Within 90 seconds of anything happening anywhere in the world, someone could send out a tweet about it. While the notion of being the first source to report on a story is nothing new—EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!—what we have observed in the past 10 years with the rise of social media is that news is much more time-sensitive as outlets are competing with thousands of other sources, rather than just the rival news paper or TV network.

Combined with the drive to be the first to report is the fact we are living in a click economy, and large news institutions are competing for those clicks with many sites that have no concern for truth whatsoever. That the scions of journalism are losing this battle is very telling about the American people and is too large an issue for this particular post.

It’s important that when sources we trust get things grossly wrong, they are held accountable. They need to admit when they have made a mistake. When Sean Hannity tweeted out an apology for helping to boost that fake story, he was doing the responsible thing. We need to demand this more.

Advertisements

Tools For Media Literacy

img_0070

As promised, here are just a few things to keep in mind when you are consuming news  and trying to think critically about what you are looking at.

Know your source

Is there an editorial policy? Most large news organizations have one and can be accessed by typing the name of the outlet + “Editorial Policy” into a search engine. When you encounter a new news source online, visit their About Us page. I have seen crazy “News” stories only to visit the website’s About Us to find out, “We publish a MIX of real and fake news LOL.” Well that explains the unbelievable headline; the content itself is literally not to be believed. But that didn’t stop 50K people from sharing the fake news on social media.

Does the site explicitly say they are presenting a liberal or conservative point of view? I have no problem visiting sites that do, and encourage others to do the same. The devolution into echo chambers is part of the problem so get out there, see what people on the other side are saying. The ones that are really problematic are those that clearly have a political agenda and yet do not present themselves as such. Some may even promote themselves as “bipartisan” when they clearly are not.

Is it News or Opinion/Editorial?

A lot of people grumbling about biased journalists these days are unaware of one simple fact: Journalists are not necessarily supposed to be unbiased. News reporters are, but not all journalists are news reporters. Plenty of journalists write opinion pieces and offer analysis.

In determining bias, it is important to be able to distinguish news from opinion. Look at any newspaper and it has an Op/Ed section. Opinions and editorials are often distinguished as something separate from the rest of the newspaper. But with online sources these lines have been blurred, so make sure you can understand the difference in order to form your own opinion based on facts rather than on someone else’s opinion.

Byline

Is there an author attributed to writing the story? Look for a name, preferably one that links to a photo, brief bio and maybe even an email or social media account. Real journalists stand by their words.

Sometimes writers use pen names to remain anonymous. Most of the time, using a pseudonym on a regular basis is indicative of someone not having the integrity to be personally associated with what they are writing so that should say a lot about the integrity of the material being presented. Pseudonyms are not always bad. Sometimes the use is justified, such as when someone is reporting from a country led by an oppressive regime hostile to the press. In America, we’re not quite there yet so readers need to be aware that without credible sources, information from an anonymous writer should be consumed with a very critical eye.

What’s even worse than a pen name is a “news” article that isn’t attributed to anyone. Beware of any source that doesn’t even bother to convince you that what you are about to read was not thrown together by unpaid interns or possibly completely fabricated by would-be “journalists” making $5 per “story” for various content sites. If you are reading anything without a writer’s name listed it usually means no one is willing to be identified with the content. Compared to articles written under a pseudonym, unattributed stories should be trusted even less, if at all.

Headline

Headline abuse is the primary vehicle of click bait. And every time you click that link, you are reinforcing the idea that you want salacious content, not actual facts and news. So stop it.

Historically, a misleading headline in a newspaper could be an honest mistake because journalists don’t write the headlines. Editors or typesetters do. But increasingly headlines seen on our social media feeds are written simply to get you to click. They often overstate what is truly presented in the story.

Most websites run ads to support themselves and create revenue. But many of these sites have a very unbalanced content/ad ratio. When you see an article with a sensational headline and then five sentences of information, broken into three paragraphs and you have flashing banner ads and pop-ups everywhere, you need to realize those site owners are not really concerned with you being an informed citizen. They don’t really care what you believe as long as you keep clicking and sharing and getting other people to click.

Photos and Crediting of Photos

Just like words should be associated with writers, so photos should be attributed to photographers. Now I realize that this is the Internet. That in addition to blatant disregard for copyright, the Internet at large demands images if you want it to pay attention. We have become a culture addicted to these images. And the folks who get paid lots of money to get you to look at, think, believe and buy things know it. That’s why so much online content is presented as slideshows complete with several ads that refresh with every new “slide”.

In today’s image-saturated media, pictures tell a lot of the story. And in many cases, people form ideas around a story and those images that accompanied the online article are part and parcel and often central to the takeaway message of the story.

Now more than ever, you need to consciously think about the pictures that accompany anything you are reading. Most pictures you see, yes–even from many reputable sources, are just stock photos, often used without the photographer’s permission and have little to do with the text of a story. For instance, a “dog bites man” story may be accompanied by a photo of a pit-bull snarling and looking particularly hostile. So you form this picture in your mind of the poor victim, being attacked by a vicious animal. The reader thinks the photo they are looking at is an actual photo of the actual dog who bit the actual man. But this is often not necessarily the case.
A well-known example of a photo being misused is the awful Ambassador Chris Stevens cattle prodding story. Shortly after the Benghazi attacks in September 2012, a photo circulated widely on the Internet, specifically through social media, of …well, I’m sure you have seen it. If not, scroll to the bottom [WARNING-GRAPHIC]

The photo is purportedly Ambassador Stephens being tortured by terrorists who carried out the attacks on the consulate and CIA annex. It created such a visceral reaction in everyone who saw it and likely fuelled the ire of critics of the Obama Administration. The problem? That picture isn’t Ambassador Stephens. It was debunked almost immediately and sourced back to a likely South American origin in 2006 and yet, it is still being passed around to perpetuate the false narrative that Chris Stevens was brutally tortured. He wasn’t.

This type of misinformation is rampant all over the Internet. I could dedicate this entire blog to photo misuse and spend all day, every day showing examples and explaining the intended deception. Before you allow yourself to be influenced by a photo, make sure you take steps to verify it is actually depicting what it says it is. Google image search is a good place to start. Pictures should be credited or captioned, preferably both. Dated as well when appropriate.

Citation of Sources

“An anonymous source says” is frequently used and is not necessarily a red flag that the information is untrue. After all, Deep Throat was an anonymous source for Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate story turned out to be very real indeed.

But when sources are named, and readers have the ability for check facts on their own, it boosts the veracity of any given story being presented. It can’t hurt to check up on sources mentioned. Sometimes when you go directly to the source, you find out that whatever you initially read that led you there put their own slant on the actual facts.

One step I like to take is when a national outlet reports on some happening in Anytown, Kansas, the first thing I do is look for local news sources on the story. Local news outlets are likely to cover events more thoroughly and with more accuracy than some partisan outlet trying to push an agenda.

 

If you don’t already, start reading news with a very skeptical eye using the tools presented here. And please learn to recognize the click bait and stop clicking. FYI: on Facebook, every post has a down arrow in the top right corner. When you see a spurious story by a questionable site, click that arrow and a drop down menu appears. You can choose to “Hide post” or “Hide all from…” whatever site it is. You’re welcome.

 

 

Awful photo of a man being tortured, but NOT Ambassador Chris Stevens:

img_0071

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

The idea of a biased media is nothing new. All news and information is being brought to you through someone else’s perspective. They’re called gatekeepers. It’s an inescapable part of being a media consumer. It’s not always nefarious or underhanded, but it underpins practically everything we read, see and hear. Instead of railing against it, we need to learn to recognize it and be able to process the parts that aren’t biased in order to reach a truly balanced and informed opinion.

The modern concept of the mainstream media was first bantered about sometime in the 1950s when aspects of counterculture became more known to the general public. The term mainstream was not used exclusively to describe the news media; other media can be considered mainstream such as film, television, books and magazines.

Initially media content had to be mainstream, whether news or otherwise; it simply had to be palatable to the widest audience possible in order to be purchased by the most number of people possible. But there was also alternate and underground press to appeal to niche audiences because it turns out that people aren’t as homogenous in our tastes as marketing executives would like us to be. So we began using the term mainstream in order to distinguish between that which was considered conventional at that time and this ‘other’.

The notion of the mainstream news media’s liberal bent started in the 60s and early 70s, and was particularly centered around reporting on the war in Vietnam. It gained momentum among conservatives in the 1980s with the publication of The Media Elite: America’s New Powerbrokers. The book highlighted a 1980 survey of journalists working for major U.S. media outlets and drew conclusions asserting that there was a clear liberal bias in the media. Since then there have been scores of books published about liberal media bias along with an equal number of books refuting it all as bull. I’m not here to argue either side, because it’s pretty much irrelevant at this point. All media is biased, remember?

Keep in mind that up until 1987, radio and television broadcasters operated in accordance with an FCC policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. At its very basic level, the Fairness Doctrine regulated the notion of fair and balanced; it stipulated that broadcasters had to give equal time to opposing points of view concerning any controversial matters of public import. Pretty vague, I know. Which is likely a huge reason why it was abandoned 30 years ago.

Not long after, right wing radio programs that had previously flourished in small, local markets began gaining in popularity and becoming more, if you will, mainstream. Some even began to gain a national audience through syndication. One thing that talk radio did was allow consumers to become more involved in the dialogue, by being able to call in and share their thoughts and opinions. Certainly Rush Limbaugh and the rise of the Dittoheads was a sign of things to come in media.

Through the 1990’s people were mostly still getting their news from print and broadcast/cable sources and for news consumers it was still mostly a one-way street, unless one felt to compelled to call the network or send a letter to the editor to voice their support or displeasure. But the Web was growing exponentially, Usenet had been in use by some and interaction with both news sources and other consumers of news was becoming the norm.

During the Bush administration, Internet news exploded and political opinion was reflected online through blogs and comments, forums and billboards. But by the 2008 election, social media had become the bullhorn through which people amplified their particular anger and praise exponentially. With the click of a share button, sensational headlines from dubious sources are traded in an endless barrage of manufactured outrage without much critical thought concerning the legitimacy of the message.

Today the Internet has brought on an almost unlimited number of resources from which we can choose to get information, no matter where on the compass our politics lay. Those who learn to recognize bias and are able to separate the wheat from the chaff are better informed and better poised to make sound, rational decisions.

 

img_0067

All of these News sources will have some degree of bias

Bias is many things. It could be the owner of a news organization wanting to present a pro-labor union stance on any issue even remotely tangential to labor unions. It can be refusal to report negatively on a high-dollar advertiser in a newspaper. Or it can be something as simple as certain modifiers used to describe any given person.

Here are a few well-known types of bias that permeate the news:

  • Bias of Omission – leaving out key aspects of a story that may change the overall conclusion the audience could reach
  • Bias by story selection/placement – this is simply choosing to ignore one story in place of running with another; putting one on the front page and the other buried on page 12
  • Commercial Bias – what is going to “sell” and be really popular, this is increasingly dangerous as decision makers are looking to market/consumer behavior analysis to decide what to report on.
  • Access Bias – not reporting adversely on something out of fear of losing access to that person or entity.
  • Visual Bias – a picture is worth 1000 words. Never was this truer and this bias is prolific in our highly visual Internet environment
  • Bias by source/expert selection – when citing sources or experts, they all magically conform to one consensus
  • Fairness Bias – feeling obligated to provide balance in areas where none is appropriate

    As for why bias exists, there are probably as many reasons for it as there are types of bias itself. Sometimes the source is intentionally trying to mislead you. Sometimes an innate feeling of the writer slips into their reporting, which is a perfectly normal, natural thing to happen. I like to think that when you brush away any source that has a deliberate overall agenda, most bias is due to the simple fact that we are all human; both providers of information and consumers of information.

    The biggest problem with tossing around accusations of bias is the avoidance of this fact that everything is filtered in some way. They say, ”Bias is in the eye of the beholder” because unless something conforms 100% to an individual’s own opinions, that source can be construed as biased itself.

    It is extremely difficult to find any report that cannot be accused of one form of bias or another. So it’s irrational to discount any source of news and information by that label alone. And yet many do it every day. “The New York Times is biased, you can’t believe anything they say.” Or “Ugh, Fox News is just a GOP mouthpiece. All they do is lie.”

    The first problem with both of these statements is the notion of reducing these behemoth organizations down to a solitary entity. In terms of any potential biases, you are contending with the thousands of different people within the organization who likely fall all over the political compass: managers, editors, reporters, and producers.

    Sure, every news organization has a general tone and that tone is dictated largely by ownership, top level executives, and also the precarious and symbiotic relationship of advertisers and audience; the latter being the reason for the organization’s existence remember. Both of these news organizations are capable of producing obviously slanted tripe and yet both are also capable of producing profoundly good pieces of investigative journalism.

    In recent years, people fed up with ‘the biased media’ have increasingly turned their backs on once-reputable news organizations and instead flock to ‘alternative’ news sources that are even less objective than any major news outlet. It’s a source of bewilderment for me that a person who, confronted with the notion of a news source’s particular slant, will turn tail and seek information from someplace that is even more biased. Exclusively looking to sources that tell you what you want to hear is not only irresponsible and lazy, but actually dangerous to democracy. Look no further than this election cycle for near constant evidence of this.

    Things are not looking good for our republic. An informed citizenry is integral to a properly-functioning democracy. Of the many things that we do not teach our young people during their 13 years of compulsory education, media literacy ranks at #1 in importance. Telling them “everything on the Internet is not true” isn’t very helpful. Young need proper tools in order to consume information and news properly. Actually old people need them too, and so does everyone really.

    Coming Soon:

  • Tools for Media Literacy
  • Think Before You Share, or Even Form an Opinion For That Matter
  • A Case for Wikipedia

The Perilous State of Journalism/2016

img_0064We have a problem with information these days in America. Trust in the media is at an all time low, there are too many outlets purposefully spreading spurious stories, and the citizenry appears to be ill-equipped to process the information they receive.

In 2016 a presidential candidate performs a ritual at his rallies whereby he goads his followers into taunting journalists who are kept locked up in a pen. It used to be that members of the press were given a separate area at events in order to facilitate special access to people and equipment they needed to do their jobs. Now it seems we do it so we can poke them with sticks through the bars.

One can barely get through a single day without seeing a reference to or even actively participating in a conversation about biased journalism or mainstream media. But is this really fair? How much of this is the fault of the news consumer rather than the news provider?

A modern absurdity is the insinuation that news, whether it be newspapers, magazines or television—and by recent extension, the Internet—was once an ivory tower of objectivity. Some argue there was somewhat of a Golden Age of unbiased news in the latter half of the 20th century but even taking that into consideration, the fact is that newspapers in America were always utilized to influence opinion. When they shifted to a profit-driven enterprise in the 19th Century, that didn’t change, in fact it got worse as publishers discovered they could just make things up in order to sell more papers.

Likewise, from its inception, commercial radio and television have always been about selling advertising. All programming exists so people listen to the content and more importantly, the commercials. Yes, even the news. Especially the news. Anyone who says there is some sort of altruistic goal of informing the citizenry is obviously trying to sell you something.

When we first learned of the World Wide Web and saw the potential of the Internet, we were filled with boundless optimism, the notion of the free exchange of information between any two computers showed a lot of promise. We saw opportunity and how much smarter we could be, with the ability to access almost any piece of information we could dream of to expand our knowledge and create a better world for all humanity.

But it turns out that the Information Superhighway is riddled with potholes, downed trees and road kill. Because while it is true the Internet has allowed for greater access to the world’s knowledge, it has also amplified the amount of noise and propaganda that shape people’s thoughts, opinions and ultimately their actions.

This presidential election cycle has become mired in a steady barrage of misinformation that replicates itself like an unchecked virus. There’s no indication that the actual election will bring it to an end, and this is one market that really needs correcting.

These days, anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection can call themselves a journalist. Get yourself a fancy layout and a catchy domain name and you are a legit news outlet. As long as you are consistently feeding people salacious headlines that feed their confirmation biases, you can be a very successful news outlet. Add the growth of social media and the sharing of these sites and you have a recipe for the rapid dissemination of misinformation on a very large scale.

Some of these websites are simply content mills; click bait to generate ad revenue. Write a gripping headline, add a stock photo (often violating copyright) and get people to click to that site consisting of a three sentence “article” with unsourced information. Accuracy doesn’t matter, just clicks and page views.

Another kind of website is the deliberately biased. These entities act as a signal boost and often simply copy/paste the text of a story from one another and it spreads virally throughout the echo chambers of whatever political or social persuasion the site’s creators are interested in reaching.

Another negative consequence of this information glut is that our attention spans are nearing zero. Long-form journalism is dead. Who wants to read an article of 10,000 words thoroughly researched and substantiated by several sources? Hardly anyone. These days consumers prefer to ‘skim’ their information, gleaning only what they perceive to be the important parts. They want bullet points, an overview.

Unfortunately most of the things that we should be talking about are very serious, highly nuanced issues that demand attention and depth. But if you can’t stick a few words in Impact font on an image macro and send it around Facebook, hardly anyone wants to be bothered with it.

Thus, I worry that the age of the internet has accelerated the demise of good thorough journalism. It is our constant clicking and shorter attention spans that is to blame. We are telling the market that we don’t want detailed, thoroughly investigated news, we want sensational headlines with minimal information.

And then there’s the problem of low media literacy and undeveloped critical thinking skills. When someone says, “The media is biased. You can’t trust them,” what they are really saying is that they lack the wherewithal, or simply the intellectual capacity to bother confirming information that is being presented to them.

It’s rather silly for anyone to discount any particular news as biased because they all are to a certain extent. People must be able to filter out the noise, not just in a macro sense, but in the minutiae of every TV news story, newspaper report or shared link that crosses their Facebook feed.

In high school, I took an elective journalism class and first learned of the notion of bias in journalism. Mainly, that it wasn’t supposed to be there, but it was anyway. Ever since then, I’ve always closely examined the news. It turned out that no matter how objective the outlet or the journalist, I could always find even a little bit of bias; whether it be a surreptitiously placed modifier or the way quotes are cherry picked from a source, it is always there.

Sources that intentionally mislead people are only part of the problem. Even with reputable news agencies, everything you read is going to contain some degree of bias: the writer’s choice of adjectives, the editor who is cleaning up the copy, a hastily-written headline, or the overall tone of a publication or organization as dictated by the people who sign the checks.

Knowing that nothing written will ever be 100% free of bias, one can see why it is important to be able to understand when and how you are being mislead. The key is to apply critical analysis to the things we read, see and hear and not trust any one of them implicitly.

The opposite reaction is to not trust anything at all ever and that is just as irrational as falling for fake news stories. If one lacks the ability to properly analyze information, not trusting anything is the lazy way out. What you have then is lots of grossly uninformed people.

Rather than relying solely on media that aids one in upholding their confirmation bias, people need to become media literate so that they understand the tools of persuasion being used to control what they think.

There are those who don’t want to be better informed. They have become so attached to their opinions they don’t dare change them. And no amount of coaxing will get them to see things through a lens other than the distorted one of their personal choosing. I am stunned by the widespread lack of simple reasoning as exemplified by people’s ever present opinions they chose to share with the world. Continue reading