The public are being constantly warned about the risks of fake news and misinformation on social media, the internet, and even some broadcast television outlets and newspapers. Should you abandon social media or only read the elite press or what?
My suggestion is to read or view the news critically but don’t rely only on news sources; always consider sourcing your own information, as you can; and be skeptical of any source, including yourself, as we are all fooled on occasion by our desire to confirm what we already believe to be true.
Follow the News, but Recognize its Limitations
Following the news on television, radio, and newspapers (online and in print) is vital, but not all of us do this and many of us do not seriously recognize its limitations. Examples?
More and more news articles are being hidden behind pay walls, forcing you to subscribe or pay for news that was available free and openly to the world. I understand the need for news agencies to pay for their work, and do subscribe to a couple of outlets. But news sites are increasingly stooping to create tantalizing headlines that exaggerate the news to get us to pay for a trial subscription that turns into a lifetime of small cuts in our household incomes. Route around them – look for the same story outside a paywall.
Pressure on generating revenue is also pushing more papers and outlets to become more identified with a partisan or related political position to better ‘appeal to their base’, an insult you normally hear lodged against politicians. Even press outlets famous for their neutrality, such as The New York Times or the Financial Times, are becoming more polarized politically identified – you know the parties and personalities they like and don’t like.
In this and other ways, the press is often biased by their media personalities, by their need to keep or build their audience, or their developing partisan affinities, which they believe appeal to their audiences. I had a colleague who would judge people by the newspaper to which they subscribed. I don’t blame him, but it is remarkable that you can discern so much by a newspaper subscription or favourite news programme. They wear their biases on their sleeve. Therefore, I buy and read multiple papers.
Another problem is that traditional press still are limited by the so-called ‘newshole’ – the limited space in the newspaper, the limited time in a few minutes of news coverage, or the limited number of headlines on the front page, and so on. Determining what is news is therefore a major role of news editors and they can get it wrong. How should one allocate time to the Ukraine War, ‘Partygate’ or ‘Beergate’, COVID, and climate change, the cost-of-living crisis, etc. News agencies only cover a fraction of the news and leave most of it out of the papers or broadcasts. I have complained about the time given partygate, but I know others disagree with me.
And in choosing what is news or not news, we should be aware of pack journalism writ large in the digital age. Everyone in the world knows whatever others know in this networked age, and journalists follow each other to decide what’s news in ways that approximate the pack journalism of earlier eras. Therefore, some of the issues that are critical to you, may not be on the news agenda. For all these reasons, the public needs to go beyond the news.
Sourcing Your Own News and Information
First, never forget that in the digital age we are living in, you can source your own information via the internet and related digital media. The digital information tools in your hands are powerful.
For example, online search engines are one of the first places people in Britain and other nations go for information about politics and most other key categories of information. Search engines are available through major platforms like Google and Bing, but they are also being embedded in many online sites and platforms in ways that you might not recognize, such as a smart speaker in your home through voice search. But you can purposely search for information about any topic from any source in the world that is on the world wide web. Avoid advertised sites and focus on looking at a few sources identified through organic search – not paid for – but frequently viewed as a key source by others around the world.
In many news stories, journalists talk about major speeches, reports, documents, and meetings. In most cases, they don’t provide the original speech or document, but often you can easily get this online, simply by using your own search engine. As I write, people are talking about Sue Gray’s report of relevance to ‘partygate’. The original report was immediately available online under the catchy title of ‘Findings of Second Permanent Secretary’s Investigation into Alleged Gatherings on Government Premises During Covid Restrictions’. But you did not need to know the title, or go to a library, or write Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. You can just search for Sue Gray’s report! It is yours to read in full and immediately or at your leisure.
If you have key topics of interest to you, such as information about your favorite sports team, you can create an alert that routinely provides links to any information about that team posted anywhere in the world. If you are specific, you’ll find amazing information on your interests, whether your hometown, a book, a politician, a celebrity, an illness, you name it. For instance, on Google, just search for ‘creating a google alert’.
Check with your personal and social media networks, particularly if searching for information they might have direct experience with, such as related to your local community or school. Who knows someone who can help me with x? You should not trust opinions on social media any more than you would trust opinions expressed in conversations or at a meeting, but they can provide a basis for searching and discovering more authentic information.
In all these examples, you can do your own fact checking, such as by using search to move beyond what you initially read or saw.
A Healthy Skepticism
Currently, many of the public across the Western world are surprised to learn that most people in Russia say they believe and support the Kremlin’s narrative – initially about the special operation in Ukraine and now about the War against the West. This is in part because so much is blocked and censored by state-controlled media in Russia that it is harder for a person in Russia to get onto the world wide web to obtain alternative sources. But it is also because many of the people in Russia are patriotic and want to believe their government. They often selectively view and interpret what they hear to confirm their pre-existing beliefs.
This is an extreme case of what many of us sometimes do, almost like switching off the TV when your favorite team is losing or talking while a politician you don’t is on TV rather than listening to what they are saying. We are our own worst filters of information. If you are aware of this tendency, you can try to be more open-minded and skeptical of what you believe to be the truth and consider countervailing information and interpretations.
Those are my few suggestions, but I would welcome views on other strategies and any skepticism about my recommendations.