The inauguration of President Trump began a new era of tumult for American journalists. “Fake news” is a phrase that’s been tossed around a lot—so much so that I’d argue it no longer really has legitimate meaning—but the reality is that very few people trust news media. This is a stark difference from the American tradition, wherein news media and journalistic figures were seen as the only reliable sources of truth in the face of government dishonesty and manipulation (particularly in the 70s).
The internet has made it easy for many small organizations or singular individuals to begin producing news content when, in the past, their size, newness, or controversy would have prevented them from getting off the ground. In theory this is good for citizen journalism and increasing access to information. But of course theory is different than reality. The ease of content creation also allows certain organizations (cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough cough) to take advantage of the natural trust in news media while manipulating and warping that trust.
Information does not work without trust. Indeed, the only way a small news aggregation service founded in 2005 can, within a decade, go on to become one of the major ideological players in American politics is because people trust the articles and news posted on that website. The idea that Americans don’t trust the news media is inaccurate: people trust the news media selectively, and they also distrust selectively. When sources they trust tell them to distrust other sources, we have the phenomenon illustrated by the previously-linked Gallup poll. Americans have not moved past their instinct to trust the news, which is why certain organizations are able to manipulate their psychology (e.g., confirmation bias) until they’re successful.
So how do we find good news? This is the question that races through my head at night and in the shower and while I’m standing over the stove cooking my dinner and staring into the unfocused middle distance. We shouldn’t have to individually fact-check the news articles we find online, or read an article with unrelenting skepticism. That’s extremely unrealistic for the majority of people; uncertainty is exhausting. Many people don’t have time for unrelenting skepticism, even more so, they don’t know how to rigorously question what they’re reading and aren’t going to learn because it’s not important enough to them. It’s not an issue of whether or not people should be doing this; people will not do it.
So how do we find good news, and how do we get it to people? How do we discredit bad news? Let me share with you a recently viral example of good intentions:
The above chart was created by Vanessa Otero, a patent attorney from Colorado. Vanessa did a decent thing here, exposing people to the idea of news quality existing on a two-dimensional spectrum. Despite her commendable methodology, there are a couple of troubling things about this image. For instance, Slate and Vox being considered only mildly liberal, and being considered “complex” (see this article for a good explanation of the problems with Vox, but suffice to say they are rather un-rigorous and their articles, while raising decently challenging ideas, are unequivocally pandery to liberal readers while excluding the necessary leftist-minded criticism of liberality that one would expect from a rigorous publication; also it explicitly publishes opinion, not news). Another big issue here is the Huffington Post. There is no world in which the Huffington Post should be considered even moderately analytical; they’re maybe half a step above Breitbart in terms of narrow-mindedness*(see endnote). While NPR News is very straightforwardly information-based, they often do not distinguish between their news pieces and their opinion pieces (the NPR Politics podcast is very clearly skewed left). AP and Reuters should not in any world be spoken of in the same sentence as any other news source since they are a newswire—there’s not even a whiff of opinion in their information.
What this chart gets even more fundamentally wrong is the idea that moving further left or right on the spectrum = extremism. It eliminates the two-dimensionality of political ideology, i.e., the libertarian-authoritarian axis (see: this). Where is Jacobin (a well-researched leftist publication that’s highly critical of all those in power)? Where is the National Review (a well-researched slightly conservative publication concerned primarily with pre-Gingrich Republican conservatism and is critical of many in-power Republicans) or the National Review Online (which is different but also good)? Where is the Washington Times (okay, they’re kind of basic Republican fodder, but certainly much more respectable than The Hill, which was included)?
The takeaway point from Vanessa’s process is this:
Print publication costs much more money, time, and effort to build than an internet one. Most print publications have significant numbers of staff members, including professional journalists. In order to have built a successful print publication, an organization will have had to spend time and effort building credibility among a significant audience. Reputation is necessary in order to have people buy newspapers for the purposes of getting the news. As a result of the above reasons, most print publications have longevity.
Blindly trusting the news media is not the best idea, yet it’s a natural thing to want to put our minds at ease, to trust what information we are told and to form a worldview that is concrete and not constantly crumbling. It’s important to build that worldview with strong materials, strong information that can be trusted.
The best way to get good news is to focus on print media, on things that are less easy to shoot off into the cloud on a whim (like this very essay you’re reading right now). Things that require editors, and researchers, and that cost money to print. The cost of print media requires a more focused care on the quality of content. So, subscribe as much as possible. Subscribe to the New York Times and/or Washington Post, or buy them if they don’t deliver, or maybe look into online subscriptions. Subscribe to the National Review magazine—don’t just read the website (which, again, is different!). Go look at the people winning Pulitzers and subscribe to their publications.
The important part is that you will need to pay for your information—it’s just the nature of our world right now. If content was good, it wouldn’t be free. With the exception of network television evening news shows (that’s NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News), free content is crap, it’s a vehicle for selling advertisements. Don’t buy in.
EDIT: it’s important to understand that having some good content is not the same has having mostly good content. For example: Huffington Post has some excellent journalists writing and publishing articles, and they have a lot of clickbaity articles and sponsored content. Those types of things bring down the credibility of the organization as a whole, diminishing the goodness of even the best content. The same applies to the Fox News network.