BRACK: Navigating news in times of scandal and hyperbole

A clever window display in New York catches the eye.

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher  |   With scandal swirling throughout Washington and more indictments stemming from a corruption probe in Columbia, it is becoming harder to keep up with what’s really happening in government and politics.

Part of the problem is the Internet, which overturned the news apple cart by diversifying and segmenting sources of news into so many streams that it can be difficult to figure out which are credible.  There are traditional media – newspapers, magazines, radio and television – which operate under an old model of hiring professionals to report news as they see it and digest information critically to make it understandable.  These media are under threat because of loss of revenues to personalized rivers of social media and Internet sites brought to people through computers in their homes and smartphones in their pockets.

Add a highly partisan environment and the ability for anybody – Russians, Albanians, Americans – to publish anything they want through the Internet at low cost and you have so much information speeding through the ether that it’s almost impossible to know what’s what.

All of this makes people increasingly uncomfortable with the news that’s out there.  The news, these days, is noisy.  There’s so much of it, often slanted to a worldview that’s leaning the user’s way, that some of it is hard to believe. The whole mess seems to be making people question our nation’s institutions and the freedom of the press.  So let’s look at some tips on how to survive in the increasingly frenetic glut of information:

Read the U.S. Constitution.  The document is relatively short – only 16 pages printed on paper about the size of a checkbook.  Reading the Constitution periodically may remind you of the simplicity and power of the structure of checks and balances in our system that “created a land of opportunities,” as the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger once wrote.  Reading the Constitution and its 26 amendments (another 11 pages) may restore your faith in the institutions of government.

Be a more skeptical user of media.  When reading something in a newspaper or online, think about who wrote it and whether they are pushing a point of view.  If there’s a tantalizing headline or something that seems like “clickbait,” there’s probably a reason for that – it may be laced with opinion or fake news, which is nothing more than a new name for propaganda.

“Fake news is an oxymoron,” says Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Information and Communication at the University of South Carolina.  “If it is fake, it’s not news.  If it’s news, it better not be fake.”

Turn off social media as your news authority.  Bierbauer, an award-winning television journalist who joined the university 15 years ago, uses social media to link him to developing stories from credible sources.   We, however, think it may be doing more harm than good because it narrows information being consumed by users.  If they receive most of their information from people who think and act like they do, they may not be getting a full picture to be able to make informed judgments about what’s going on.

“Social media’s ostensible purpose is to connect us, but it is dividing us,” Bierbauer agreed.

Diversify what you read and hear.  If your TV is always on Fox, turn it to MSNBC often to see what’s going on there.  Read stories from a variety of news outlets that employ professional journalists.  Get away from what people are “talking about” on social media and focus on facts that can be sourced.

“The basic thing is not to confine yourself to one viewpoint — to expose yourself to multiple viewpoints and make informed decisions, not kneejerk decisions,” Bierbauer advised.

Seventy five years ago, the notion of a free press was challenged by monopolistic owners who operated expensive news operations with comparatively little competition.  In response, the media crafted a social responsibility theory that called on news outlets to provide citizens with enough information so they could make informed decisions.

Now following the rise of the Internet, it’s time for people to take individual responsibility with news to ensure they have enough information to make informed decisions about our democratic institutions.


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