by John Zielinski
When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago there were 3 daily Chicago newspapers – 2 published in the morning and 1 in the evening. Each paper had several editions with different deadlines. As a result, the content was sometimes subtly different between editions. Suburban cities, towns and villages had their own dailies or papers that were published once or twice a week. Those focused mostly on local news and reprinted national and international news from the Associated Press and United Press International. Then there were the electronic media.
Back in the days of VHF television there were 5 Chicago stations. Three were affiliates of the major networks (WBBM [CBS], WMAQ [NBC] and WBKB [ABC]), 1 was purely local (WGN) and 1 (WTTW) was “educational television.” In the early evening each of the network affiliates transmitted a national news show as well as a locally produced one. At 10:00 PM everyone except the educational station presented a local news show. Radio stations usually had news broadcasts once or twice an hour during in the morning, but these were fairly short – maybe 5 minutes long.
Thanks to the relatively small number of news outlets it was pretty easy to check the accuracy of a story. All that one had to do was compare the Tribune to the Sun-Times or the Daily News or compare what CBS reported to what NBC said. Sure, reporters had deadlines, but the period between editions or broadcasts allowed time to dig for facts and time to verify what was dug up. It was during that time Walter Cronkite of CBS earned the title The Most Trusted Man in America.
By the time Cronkite came to prominence on TV he had earned his stripes as a reporter for print. He covered WWII in the European theater. He covered D-Day. After the war he covered the Nuremberg trials. By the time he reached TV he had developed a reputation for the accuracy of his reporting. It was said that he would refuse to report stories until the facts had been validated. He thought that it was more important to get the story right than to get it first. Walter would end his broadcast by saying, “and that’s the way it is.” Because of his tenacity in getting the facts right we believed him.
In those long-gone times TV was known as “broadcasting.” Thanks to cable and the World Wide Web we live in a world of narrowcasting or even slivercasting. Cable stations, web sites, e-mail newsletters, blogs and the rest can target audiences that broadcasters would have thought too small. Fox News averaged about 1.5 million viewers per day in 2017 according to AdWeek That’s a whopping 0.4 percent of the US population. In a typical month CNN’s digital properties get about 3.6 million unique US visitors per day – still only about 1.1 percent of the population. For comparison the evening news programs on each of the 3 broadcast networks regularly draw between 7 million and 9.6 million viewers per day.
The narrowcasting outlets need to churn content 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The content is highly focused on their target demographic. Each outlet tries to get a story out before anyone else without necessarily worrying about the accuracy of the facts. If there’s nothing new to report the story will be regurgitated as a loop with “expert analysts” (whose qualifications are sometimes questionable) chiming in on “the greater meaning” or “the wider implications.” Because of the varying demographics targeted by the various outlets one must ask how likely a person will be to cross-check what’s being reported on their favorite news source with news sources that they rarely – if ever – visit. Even if they bother to compare it’s pretty easy to claim, “Fake news!” if the version of the story from the favorite source doesn’t match the version from another. Based on a number of high-profile incidents involving generally trusted sources, though, figuring out what’s fabricated and what’s real is getting more difficult. Then there’s the matter of “satirical” outlets that fail to identify themselves (or that readers fail to recognize) as satire, outlets that intentionally spread misinformation or disinformation and outlets that are based on the most outrageous conspiracy theories. All of these things end up going into the blender and get blindly re-presented on Facebook, Twitter or whatever the social media service du jour may be.
What’s one to do?
Here are 3 of the most valuable lessons that I’ve learned when encountering something that purports to be news. First, ask, “So what?” Use this as a scalpel to cut out irrelevancies. Applied consistently this helps to focus the reader or viewer on what’s important in the story. It can also help to reveal biases in the story. Second, demand, “Specify!” This is especially important when numerical information is involved. There’s a huge difference in a 10 percent increase when the base number is 100 and when the base number is 1 million or between absolute and per capita values. If the story tosses around numbers without explaining them it’s time to be suspicious. Finally, trust but verify. Compare what’s being said about the same item by different outlets including ones that you don’t generally read or watch. See what Fox News, CNN and the New York Times all have to say.
I’ll readily admit my bias for the written word from sources generally known to be reputable over video. I feel that a 1,000 word print piece can more completely convey information than a 2 minute video piece on the same topic. I can also reread and consume the content of prose at my own pace. Because of that I read 2 US newspapers every morning as well as reviewing the feeds from Reuters, Bloomberg and the AP. I also check the English language versions of foreign news outlets. Finally, I check out the news aggregators. This gives me the ability to compare and contrast what’s being reporting. Having said this, I don’t hesitate to review video pieces either on television or web new sites. The 1 thing that I’ve generally come to distrust is memes on social media and I suggest that others consider doing so as well.
There was a time when I would trust the content of a meme based on my knowledge of the person who posted it. The person’s ideology didn’t matter. What did matter was whether I knew the person to be someone who cared about the truth. Sadly, the nature of social media is such that it’s too easy to pick up and repost something without asking about the origin or verifying the accuracy. I’ve seen this done by people across the political spectrum including people whose posts I would otherwise trust. I’ve seen this done by average people and notables in disciplines such as economics and the sciences. As a result, I’ve come to treat all news related memes as false until proven otherwise. Trust but verify.
Once upon a time Uncle Walter was The Most Trusted Man in America. I don’t think that anyone will ever hold that title again.