Like most things worth doing well in life, there’s no one, easy way to make sense of the world. Reality—as Plato, Kant, and Lippmann taught in their own ways—is always just out of reach. In fact, it turns out there are far too many, far too easy ways to make sense of the world, most of which land us in serious trouble. Fifteen years of research and teaching in the field of media studies has taught me that there are better and worse ways of informing yourself about the world. Here are a few best practices that might just help readers and their friends stay grounded on the eve of a momentous election. A lot of people don’t consume the news at all because it is too gloom and doom, and increasingly many people don’t do so because they believe it is all biased and none of it can be trusted.
Good news: we do not need to despair. In fact we need to not disconnect—at least not entirely. There are solid ways forward: not all media biases are equal. Some bias is normal. The moment you encounter bias, don’t reject it, don’t embrace it, but do observe it—and learn over time how to calmly observe bias in yourself and others, and then evaluate it yourself so you can move forward.
Media literacy is worth it for one simple reason: there does not exist a sustainable system in the world that does not also depend upon corrections to its working worldview. Can you name an exception? And will you be a part of helping that happen here? Organizations that self-correct survive. So, to save the ailing health of our polity for another day, start with yourself: how are your news habits helping you self-correct?
Reading the news puts you in charge of your attention while television or radio news largely does the opposite.
If I had a magic media literacy lamp and one wish, I would probably wish that all vote-eligible citizens would do one simple thing: read, not watch, the news. There are a few ways that reading the news can turn sour, but there are almost no ways that watching the news can go well. (I say this even as my best students often end up running television news stations.) Reading the news puts you in charge of your attention while television or radio news largely does the opposite: since the arrival of the internet, television and radio news have had to turn to all possible means—”if it bleeds, it leads” mentalities, casino-style visual techniques, overhyped local dramas, an endless wash of cheap, explosive opinion among talking heads (not expensive fact-checked reporting), and nationally standardized news scripts. The upside has meant that almost anything can be covered in theory; the downside is that only the stuff that sells eyeballs (which still includes serious reporting) makes the cut. Steer clear of much of that: consume content that comes in a highly focused, well-edited medium. Read your news.
Which news sources are best to choose? Well, all news media are businesses, and over the last twenty years with the arrival of the internet, social media, and mobile phones, we have seen, with them, the flood of free content has made it much harder for any news media company to make money by selling only quality, fact-driven news content. So, let’s review how to check news business biases.
You get what you pay for: if you can afford about $10 a month on news media, buy your local newspaper first and then subscribe to ideally two politically competing mainstream sources—for example, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic or The Economist. There’s no guarantee that your local newspaper is very good—in fact, twenty years of slow defunding of its market has probably starved it of needed resources to realize a fundamental truth of all news: all news begins local. (Even stories about our cosmos start in reporting from carefully chosen observatories atop hilltops on cloudless nights.) If you can’t afford that, just stick to reading and listening to publicly funded news, like NPR, PBS, and BBC. When in doubt, trust Reuters and the Associated Press (AP). Beyond your free few articles on a month of subscription-based mainstream news, be cautious. If you’re not paying for your news online, you are the product: the company is buying your attention and selling it for ad revenue or other gains. Media sources that do not have something to lose by serving you content will also likely be prone to distort and misuse your attention too. If you’re not paying for your news with subscriptions or taxes, your news is a likely lemon.
It is a fool who imagines that individual journalists do not have political biases, even with the most fact-checked reporting. But it is an even greater fool that imagines that mainstream journalists do not want to be paid or promoted by outperforming their peers by breaking the story first and most accurately. Like scholars, journalists tend liberal since many prefer the freedom of the written word over the security of corporate pay. Mainstream journalists often, but not entirely, check one another’s often-liberal biases through market competition and free press pressures to outperform their peers. Despite dwindling resources for fact-checking in house, most mainstream journalists still ferociously cling to a culture of free press and fact verification. As their industry adage goes, “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
The same basic instinct—trust but verify—can also help you check the biases of any one journalist: simply read the same news story across two or more politically competing but still mainstream news sources (Websites like Allsides.com serve them up for you side by side; Politifact subjects politician claims to the Truth-o-Meter; Media Matters and Newsbusters check media on the right and left, respectively; The Week, noting its center-left slant, also presents an excellent news roundup snapshot pulling quotes on one story from across leading sources each week). Doing so won’t cancel out opposing biases to zero. (That’s not the goal.) No, something much more interesting will happen: you will begin to see stories and the issues connecting stories in (non-reconciling) multiple dimensions. The goal is not to balance out in the center of a two-dimensional political spectrum so much as to develop parallax perspective on the world that gives three or more dimensions and depth. Perhaps only from outside the left-right political spectrum can we hope to stably observe the many asymmetries at work in our political reality. (That same claim, from anywhere on the spectrum, however, quickly falls prey to an endless cascade of two-dimensional false equivalences and whataboutism claims.)
Checking media ownership bias—such as the quiet influence of billionaires like Jeff Bezos in the center and political donors like the Koch brothers on the fringes—can be a bit trickier. Again, subscribe to your local newspaper (yes, please don’t forget all news begins locally) and applaud the mainstream media whenever they self-check by criticizing the Bezos-style capital that funds them, but keep in mind: only the most fearless mainstream media will not be slow to bite the hand that feeds it. It’s a blind spot, but a predictable and often understandable one.
What about fringe media—the Breitbart and InfoWars? Now it is true that the fringe media—those news sources that are largely free, openly politically biased, heavy on opinion and propaganda, and lean on facts—can cover issues rarely encountered in mainstream media. And besides, now that we’ve normalized the fact that we all have political biases, why not indulge it by mainlining some fringe news sources? Motivated reasoning is a known human bias, so why not just consume only the extreme news that confirms, not corrects, whatever our bias may be?
For the love of all things holy, no—just no.
Do not read or watch fringe news. Stop right now. Fringe media just needs to sell eyeballs: its hot takes just need to be popular and not covered in the mainstream to sell; nothing about its business model requires its work to be grounded in reality. (Libel laws temper the insults a bit, but, alas, facts cannot sue for libel, so reality has no recourse against the unscrupulous— at least not yet. Some scholars like Jack Balkin and Jonathan Zittrain propose— I think promisingly—information and media fiduciaries as a way to protect public risk of fringe and social media actors.) Fringe news sources have all the interpretation and ownership biases of mainstream news, compounded by the unbearable bias against facts. Not only do fringe media not have many of the usual reasons to stick to the facts, but the fringe also sells so well because it can appeal to our basest instincts untethered from reality: most consumers of fringe media, however much they enjoy the bias affirmation, if they paused to think about would realize they are actually betting against the very thing they want to be true. (The book Trust Me, I’m Lying offers a not-unrelated self-expose from a professional liar.)
On the fringe, any number of “realities” can exist (if you don’t see what is wrong with that, and I do not often say this, please do not vote): this is precisely what makes the fringe the “fringe,” the fraying of verifiable reality into a thousand threads of theories unchecked by evidence. Reuters and the AP are your monthly fresh groceries budget; they are kinda boring but healthy. InfoWars and Breitbart are the casino; the house always wins, so get out of the house.
Feel free to discuss but do not get your news on social media: the echo in your echo chamber is deafening, and most of it is the clickbait opinion dross (not all opinion is bad: when done well, it can refresh our language, prick our conscience, and animate our imagination). If you do discuss on social media, do not use contempt or disgust, and do your best to correct with empathy and evidence. Take calm and courage in recalling that bipartisan electoral systems actually require all voters to choose against the worst of two candidates. Until there is electoral reform (which can start tomorrow at the county level, by the way), the negative choice discourse is a real cost we all must pay in election seasons. Simply put, all bipartisan voters need to reduce the complex calculus of candidates into a simple thumbs up and down votes, and that’s always a costly choice. Make space in your language to account for that complexity and uncertainty. A fair rule: exclamation points are for congratulations only (and a professional email never has more than one). Remember that the many folks opposing your favorite politician on your thread are demonstrably better people than your favorite politician: vote quietly in the comments for the worth of their soul before you vote loudly for or against an absent political figure.
Wikipedia is a great place to start and a terrible place to finish a search.
Let’s talk about a few terms. Don’t say “the media” when you can name specific sources. When in doubt, trust data from sites ending in .gov, then .edu, and discount most others. Wikipedia is a great place to start and a terrible place to finish a search. Avoid the hall of mirrors phrase “fake news,” the persecution-complex affirming accusation of “conspiracy theories,” and the claim that you’ve “researched” your position (unless you’ve run double-blind experiments or a literature review across scholarly databases, you haven’t researched anything). If you need to correct a very biased source, consider gently dropping in a link or quote from that source’s page on one of several media bias check sites; if you must correct a position, a negative expression of care “dunno, that’s kinda uncool, friend” prompts more reflection than blasting “sheeple” or “Nazi!” Consider defusing truly insane comments with a sideway abstraction (“calling Poe’s law” or “I think I remember that one from summer camp”), not a direct engagement (“That’s SO insane”). Avoiding triggering Godwin’s law, the internet adage that all discussions will eventually end with a comparison to Nazis (unless you can back up your discussion of specific historical details of Nazism with sources).
Check yourself first: look back at your own thread histories—if anything you’ve shared has been verified false or partly false, start sharing posts more selectively and judiciously. Memes are memorable, but that’s about it: try improving the idea behind a meme by tweaking its language. Are the only sources of pushback or contradictory perspectives you get from trolls online? Then, the forum you are in is probably toxic (at least in its self-confirming biases): get out.
Let’s talk conspiracy theories for a moment. If you have to engage with the conspiracy-minded, do not get into the details: the opposite of any conspiracy theory is yet another conspiracy theory, and the end result is just another bit of folklore the modern world calls conspiracy theories (QAnon, your folklore is showing). Instead, lean on the explanatory power of parsimony and good faith estimations (“we can explain this in at least two ways: which one is more likely while assuming the fewest changes about the world—A or B?”). Remind the conspiratorially minded that, with the exception of voting and vows, reality doesn’t care what you or I think—and so our job is to calmly sort between probable and improbable takes on reality.
Risk management mindsets will not cure conspiratorial ills, but, if calmly administered, one’s opponent will have to work hard to be upset with your pragmatism. Science, it may be helpful to remember, usually works similarly through unhurried, uneven, but robust consensus-building among many people who get promoted by proving their colleagues wrong. Acknowledge the smartness and dignity of the conspiratorially minded (theory is the ability to see what is not there, so they may very well be theorizing up a storm), but gently remind them that reality is best approximated with theories checked by evidence, not evidence checked by ever wilder and wilder theories. Nudge them repeatedly with the scientific method: “Interesting. Can you say more about your attempts so far to prove your favorite hypothesis wrong, not right?”
A small minority of folks may prove so far gone into their conspiracy theories that no persuasion, gentleness, or long-suffering will matter. After you’ve tried all the normal techniques (listen for a long time, find and repeat back shared underlying interests, and invite voluntarily changes of minds that still serve their underlying interests), see if you can meet with them in person: then try double-conspiracing them back into reality (“but haven’t you heard the new revelation that [insert their conspiracy theory here] is actually a plot from the Chinese to weaken America?”). It probably won’t work, so, regardless, come clean and revert to trying to live up to D&C 121:11.
Even then, we all deserve dignity. As my 13-year-old quipped the other day, sometimes it is easier to believe the impossible than to believe the improbable. If you saw a monkey typing out Shakespeare at a typewriter, you might think the monkey speaks English before you would believe that a monkey typed out a very unlikely set of random characters. Or to paraphrase the Chinese saying, it is easier to draw a dragon than a dog. (Evidence is harder to theorize than imagination.) With a hat tip to the band, beware imagining dragons.
Tell everyone: shun YouTube-only videos. (Sorry, but that video you think might just reveal some hidden truth probably couldn’t even qualify to be advertised on social media sites—and that is a very, very low bar.) If your video or group claims to be Church-sponsored without the official endorsement of the Church, pause to consider that another Church word for that may be priestcraft. Keys and narrow straits apply to our news sources too.
Why worry about your media diet? Liberal democracies and market economies are no better than the reality their citizens approximate with our votes and actions. So, if we, the people, are not actively checking our own and one another’s biases, we forfeit our society’s ability to represent reality and therefore govern ourselves representatively. It is not that those on unwise media diets cede that right to others; no, we just stop practicing self-regulation of our biases against reality. This isn’t always an easy needle to thread: only a fool believes he fully understands the world around him. But even greater is the naïve who believes that only his view of reality really matters. As Kafka once said, in the battle between you and the world, back the world.
What about alternatives to our current world arrangement—a liberal democracy and market society? In theory, I’m in favor: the world is fallen. Anything to improve it here and now seems a good thing. In practice, if we are to back the right revolution, history reminds us that what comes after the revolution very rarely resembles even the most reasonable revolutionaries’ best intentions. Still, we can learn much from revolutionary theory and history; so, let’s improve the world by all means available to us, including significant reform, but only with very careful revolution.
If you read in other languages, also consider making a habit of reading mainstream news in those languages. Our national frame looks different from outside of it. A professor of mine once said that a global citizen can manage by reading the news in English, a second Indo-European language, and a third non-Indo-European language. (For example, English, Spanish, Mandarin; or English, French, Arabic.) Browser translations can help fill in the gaps.
In summary, read, don’t watch, the news. Don’t panic, but do engage. Don’t fear, but do manage bias. Buy a local newspaper, trust the AP and Reuters, then trust (but verify) NPR, PBS, and the BBC. (If we can’t extend any trust to the most reputable institutions occasionally, suggests Anthony Giddens, we are functionally postmodern.) Read critically at least the headlines across mainstream news, both left and right (while remembering that the mainstream is often slow to criticize the Bezos version of capitalism that supports it). Don’t read the fringe (unless your job is to study it critically). And gently but firmly criticize, with empathy and evidence, the fringe-curious online.
Let’s get back to the vital, hard, and worthwhile work of correcting ourselves and caring for others. A better reality awaits.