Sunday, June 9, 2013

Things I grew up thinking about the media

Sometimes overwhelmingly it strikes me that other people did not grow up with journalists. As usual, there are people angry on Tumblr about a 'media conspiracy,' utterly outraged that something didn't spin the way it would in their ideal world. I usually abjectly fail to comprehend.

My mom, dad, and step-mom all have journalism degrees. All have worked extensively in print journalism, though none do anymore. They've collectively worked variously in PR (both before and after social media), political campaigns, television, online news coverage, editing (ranging from copy-editing daily newspapers to helping writers organize the content of their history books), and magazines. They imparted three important things:

  1. Journalists lie.
  2. Factcheck everything.
  3. Don't watch Fox News.
Journalists lie.
Every journalist is a person, and people are subject to cognitive biases as well as personal bias. Journalists have a professional code of ethics, but it doesn't cover every circumstance, and journalists are still fallible. Some of them can't find sources who have accurate information, or can't do so by a pressing deadline. Some of them can't or don't find the sources for balanced coverage. Some of them have to work within editorial bounds that include political leaning. Some of them are Joel Stein.

Factcheck everything.
People get things wrong. People misapprehend. People read summaries and then try to summarize them and end up somewhere else completely. No matter how much you adore someone, unless your chief reason for adoring them is rigid and obsessive factchecking, be prepared to check their story before repeating it. Some things, a sanity check is most of what's needed: if a three-headed cow was really born in Nebraska, wouldn't it be more likely to be in an article in Agri-Chemical News than in The National Enquirer? Check as many sources as possible! I ran into an issue last week where I'd only read one news source for a thing, and it wasn't recent enough or comprehensive enough to actually give me the answer I was looking for, but I ended up repeating it anyway, and then retracting my statement and apologizing and feeling very silly.

Usually, I try to check two independent sources before I repeat or reblog (I'm on tumblr a lot these days) any kind of newsy thing. Like the persistent urban legend that Mister Rogers served in the military: no, he didn't. Try to get independent confirmation of things, try to get multiple sources, try to get firsthand accounts, try to get physical proof. The truth is important, and the story you tell with the truth is important.

Don't watch Fox News.
You know that first point about journalists? An important thing to keep in mind is that most of the people who talk on Fox are commentators and analysts and not actually journalists.

Fox lies. Fox fear-mongers. Fox wasn't allowed to broadcast in Canada until 2004, and even now broadcasters are required to monitor it and "abridge or curtail" any hate speech, because it is an active concern. Canada has standards about lying on air, and so Fox isn't allowed out without a leash on.

Fox is sometimes put on the same playing field as news agencies because they present themselves as the more right-leaning news option that is still totes reliable, yo. That's incorrect. There are tons and tons of articles out there enumerating the ways Fox has straight-up lied on air: find them. Check up on me. Factcheck. Just don't do it with The O'Reilly Factor on in the background.

These are the reasons I am dumbfounded when people point out that the story in the Saturday paper is different than the one in the Sunday paper and cry conspiracy or coverup: if it's a normal morning paper and the incident happened late late late Friday night, the journalist who wrote the story probably had an hour or less to find out what happened, get a statement from a witness, write the article, submit it to their copyeditor, and have it sent to Layout to make the deadline. Then they had all of Saturday! That means they got to talk to more people, maybe get a photographer by, and do their own factchecking.

This is mostly a ramble, but if there's anything I'd really like anyone to walk away with, it's that 'The Media' isn't a massive unified faceless machine: it's a few (disturbingly few, but that's a separate issues) corporations and a lot of Editors in Chief and even more journalists, all with slightly different agendas and all with varyingly applicable codes of ethics. The best, and ultimately only, thing you can do to further pursue truth is to think critically about everything.

No comments:

Post a Comment