We can’t effectively move forward if we don’t work together for a common goal, and we can’t find a common goal if we don’t have the wherewithal to consider controversial facts.
Labelling the immense accumulation of misinformation propagating through our culture as a “crisis” is not dramatic. At one point, we coalesced around only a couple of news outlets and we consumed fewer contradictory narratives. Now, we have thousands of narratives competing for attention, and attention provides a disorienting bearing of credible and valuable information. Yet, I would like to believe that more narratives are better than less. Our concerns should be how to properly navigate through multiple competing narratives.
Therefore, a good start is to assess:
- the incentives behind the voice;
- the credibility assets underlying the voice; and
- the value of the information.
Incentives: The reporting of news, in most outlets, is incentivized by profit. However, profit is not always a good incentive to produce quality news if quality news is not desired by consumers. Currently, it does not seem that there are enough consumers to demand accurate reporting, an obvious requirement for quality news.
A volunteer-based reporting structure can relieve the befuddling aspects of profit-driven news. WikiTribune may be an answer. Wikipedia has become a staple of internet research even in spite of cynical high school teachers who prohibited it from research papers. If WikiTribune is executed properly, it could be the next go-to source for new reporting.
Credibility Assets: A credibility asset is anything that tends to make news more trustworthy. For example, the expertise of the reporter, the newsroom processes to verify accuracy, and the history of the news outlet.
Assessing the credibility of news reporting should not be undervalued. While we’ve had less need in the past to question the credibility of many of our institutional news sources, those institutions are currently under assault and some may not withstand.
The current state of assessing credibility is in disarray because many people willfully accept information they know cannot be verified. Indeed, many seek news that provides comfort and eschews the notion that their information is not credible. Others, unfortunately, may not have the tools to assess credibility and find the process confusing.
The confusion in assessing credibility may lead to an influx in paid information services, or it will require more allotted time to find credible information, which may stoke demand for better information curators. Otherwise, information that was too easily obtained carries with it a heightened possibility that it’s incentives and underlying credibility assets are hollow. Such hollow credibility rightly leads to an inference that the information is propaganda.
Some policymakers are seeking more options in “content moderation,” which implicitly assumes the authority to assess credibility. Large content firms require a slew of “moderators” to ensure hasty recognition of malfunctions and compliance issues in offered services. For example, Germany recently passed a law requiring the removal of information not in compliance with German law, such as Holocaust denial, within 24 hours of its posting. Facebook then announced it would increase its global moderator army by3000 new moderators. However, moderating content, especially upon the behest of a governmental objective, comes dangerously close to governmental interference in the marketplace of ideas.
Value: Assessing the value of news is by far the most complicated and difficult aspect of news consumption. It requires judgments made on both sides of the reporting. The reporter must judge which story is important enough to report and what information is most pertinent. The consumer must make the same judgment about what news to consume.
Yet, what complicates this dichotomy is the societal pull of trending news. To successfully propagate news, the reporter must catch people’s attention on a large scale. Any news outlet, in order to remain afloat, must follow particular trends and standards in certain circumstances, and thus, deviations from standards are dangerous because they can create discomfort.
For example, if a news outlet sought to be contrarian, it would probably need to report some easily digestible facts that aren’t engulfed in controversy in order for others to find comfort in a news outlet.
Bottom Line: The credibility assessment outlined above is by no means complete. What is important, though, is for consumers to consider the sources and incentives of their news more so than consuming news in the first place. By not consuming news, a person’s understanding of reality is not altered by potential misinformation. Many people spend more than a third of their day consuming media, and if much of that is news, perceptions of reality are sure to change. It would be a shame if too many people lived their lives in a befuddled reality because they failed to assess the accuracy of the the information they consumed. If we endeavor to change how we collectively consume information, we can begin to make the world a better and less confusing place.