Indian Ink
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Indian Ink

Finding your truth-sayers

In a sea of fake news, we need guides to arrive at the truth

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Fake news is a major contributor to today’s dysfunctional news. But it’s not the only factor. People today have a short attention span and prefer to scroll through the instant world of Twitter and Instagram with their short and hot takes. But these insubstantial feeds are not really capable of giving us a comprehensive perspective of any issue. To really understand what’s going on in the world, we need well-researched presentations of all facts related to an issue, in-depth analysis of the same, and the patience to listen to open but constructive debates between people from both sides of the issue.

Doing the above will take a lot of time. So why waste time when we can google an issue and receive tons of info at our fingertips in a few seconds?

The answer is authenticity. Even if we have the time and patience, it’s hard to filter the truth from those tons of information, a lot of which is deliberately manipulated by different players to make it hard for us to tell what’s true and what’s fake. Because if they can confuse us, they can control us.

Truth is a relative thing
Even while I type this, people are dying because they refuse to take Covid vaccines as they believe they are dangerous. Meanwhile, the pro-vaccine crowd claims vaccines are perfectly harmless. The truth lies somewhere in between. Any foreign chemical put into your body can have dangerous side effects, which may reveal itself many years later. But you have to weigh this unknown risk against the known risk of being unvaccinated increasing the probability of you being severely affected or even dying of a Covid infection. The decision then becomes easy.

To figure how to survive this confusing world of info overload, we need to get a fix on the several factors that are at play.

Why traditional media is dying

He who has data is king

I recall a time when newspapers in India used to be all about reporting with just a few opinions on the editorial page. Most pages were solely devoted to advertising. Those newspapers often had 20–30 pages, yet sold for as little as a rupee (one cent in US currency) because advertising was paying the bills.

Traditional media’s advertising business was driven to a large extent by placement. For instance, an expensive ad for a car on the front page of a national daily was a guarantee for the ad to be noticed.

But customer habits have changed. Instead of the newspaper, customers now get their news online. So that front-page ad in the newspaper will miss its mark. Secondly, what if the customers don’t check newspapers at all? With so many media options, how does the car-maker know where his target will be? He could try advertising his car on a TV channel that is telecasting an F1 race but it’s a long shot, and businessmen don’t like to gamble on long shots.

Whereas Facebook can offer that same car-maker fine-tuned ads that will appear in the Facebook feed of a customer who is actively looking to buy a car? Facebook can do this as they have built up an extremely detailed data profile about their users that lets them predict what they are likely to buy. Obviously, this is of huge interest to car-makers who want to get in touch with those likely to buy their cars. This is far more cost-effective for that car-maker. So he is unlikely to go back to traditional media once he sees the results of advertising on social media.

As we can see, the key is the data harvested by FaceBook. Here’s an article from Wharton University that studies how our data is used.

Traditional media is cash-starved

Faced with a situation of customers moving online, traditional media have opened online versions of their offline business to try to retain their customers. But the vanishing ad budgets mean they just don’t have enough money to fund the research, time, and effort required to put together good fact-based news stories. A journalist who once had the luxury of a week or two to write a story, may now be expected to submit two stories in a day.

Clickbait headlines amplify the distrust of media

So instead of news reports, traditional media now focuses on negative news cycles like mass shootings, terrorist attacks, scandals as these are more likely to get noticed, and those views will bring in the ad money. Their focus is on opinion pieces that are light on content and supporting facts but try to hook readers with clickbait titles. Now if those clickbait headlines regularly turn out to be misleading, the reader will eventually avoid that publication.

For instance in the above post, what was the ‘staggering act that the camera caught’? Ash Barty hitting a few balls with Iga Swiatek? All that kind of misleading headline will do is ensure I avoid Yahoo News like it’s poison.

Anyone can write ‘news’ without content

Besides, this kind of news doesn’t require much skill to create.

This has opened the door wide to competition. Anyone with a cheap device that can access the net is now a journalist. And if this guy can generate clickbait headlines, he’s up and running. This explains the plethora of fly-by-night news websites popping up on the net, which makes life harder for real journalists.

For instance, this YouTuber called Dhruv Rathee has built up quite a following in India with his anti-establishment rhetoric. He seems to be making quite a good living out of it too. The thing is this money should have gone to the traditional media. It didn’t, and that’s why it’s dying.

Sources are drying up

There is another big casualty in this clickbait story strategy. If a newsworthy person makes time to be interviewed by a reporter, he expects a good solid story. If he instead sees a poorly crafted story, and his words being quoted out of context for clickbait value, that newsmaker will stop giving interviews to the media. As this is happening all the time, that means there are fewer sources for the news industry, which is bad as their lifeblood is the source.

Traditional media is taking sides

With traditional media giving up the high ground of well-researched, objective news, some big names will fall by the wayside. Of those left, some will strategically yoke their news wagon to a political viewpoint, with Fox News being a good example. Since they cater only to a particular political audience, their content will always reflect that audience’s views. This earns them the trust of that audience, and it becomes easy to get their viewers to swallow any outlandish story. In short, news from such media is almost guaranteed to be biased and unreliable.

Independent journalism is slowly going extinct

Independent journalism is becoming increasingly hard to find. The fall from grace of the New York Times is a reflection of the credibility crisis of the industry. NYT used to be one of my go-to sources for reliable news. Not anymore, as they have given up the neutrality which was what made them stand out. For instance, their recent coverage of anything to do with India has been totally negative. In fact, they are quite open about their anti-India stance as this recent recruitment ad shows. See the fourth and sixth paras.

This recruitment ad reveals NYT’s bias against the Indian government (see para 4 & 6)

NYT actually defines ‘empathy towards Indians’ as those with a political bias against the ruling Indian government. This blatant invitation of job applicants with a biased outlook is quite revealing of the cynicism that now rules NYT. What a sorry end for what used to be the gold standard in news.

To find the beacons of truth, go to the source

Long-form Sources

Most thought leaders are gravitating to some platform, where they can interact with the world without any filters. For instance, Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, has a presence here on Medium itself.

The ex-President’s Medium Page

So if you want to know Obama’s specific thoughts on say, the George Floyd ruling by the court, you can find it here. I like this long-form format as it allows the writer to present his case in a well-thought-out manner.

Short-form Sources

Short-form communication works for some folks, like sports stars who prefer to communicate directly to their fans so as to bypass the entire media circus. For instance, the press was speculating on Federer’s health after his 0–6 set in his loss at Wimbledon. Roger clarified things with this short Instagram post.

An example of clever use of the short-form medium is Elon Musk. His tweets are often quite hilarious, like this one responding to a query about SpaceX.

Go to the horse’s mouth… but don’t get taken for a ride

Though the most obvious place to get the right answer is the horse’s mouth, sometimes the horse can speak with a forked tongue. The result will be chaos, and Donald Trump is living proof of this.

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” is Joseph Goebbels's famous explanation of how the Nazi propaganda machine worked. The former US President took this to the next level by re-labeling lies as alternate facts, which is an oxymoron if there ever was one. Trump even openly boasts about how he puts a spin on the truth if it doesn’t favor him. You can see a video clip of Trump saying this below. The gist of what Trump said is:

…You know they do that straw poll, right? If it’s bad, I just say, “It’s fake.”
If it’s good, I say, “That’s the most accurate poll, ever.”

Video

YouTube is still the go-to place for most of us when we wish to hear people in their own words. Like I have been following Lebron putting together a superteam again, to get his Lakers to match up to Durant’s Nets. His goal seems to be to win another ring and take away the GOAT tag from Jordan. And I wondered why Kobe didn’t do the same with Jordan. So I went on YouTube and found this video where I got the answer to my question straight from the Mamba’s mouth. That’s so refreshingly different from Lebron’s sucking up to China just for the moolah.

Audio

Audio’s revival in the age of YouTube videos and Twitter has been a surprise. Being a two-way medium where it’s possible to go into details unlike say Twitter is part of the appeal. For instance, Elon Musk sounds very different from his Twitter persona in this recorded session on Clubhouse, an audio chatroom app that’s one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley.

Likewise, I listened to the audiobook version of Barack Obama’s account of his first four years in the White House, and it was a fascinating insight into how US politics actually works.

Podcasts

These are the equivalent of long-form news in audio. It’s also an ideal way to use your idle time when you are out on a run or commuting. For instance, I have been curious to know what makes the inscrutable Chinese tick ever since the recent borders clashes between China and India. The podcast below gives an insider’s view of the Chinese mindset by an Indian who once worked in China’s national TV, and is quite an eye-opener.

Another podcast I chanced upon is All-In. It’s hosted by four US billionaires with differing political views, which gives it the entertaining pull of reality TV. They also fit my definition of a good news source: a diverse range of stories, all relevant facts related to an issue, in-depth analysis, and a combative but constructive debate on the issue. The podcast is free and has no ads, allowing for an unbiased independent viewpoint. I think they make money through an investing syndicate linked to the pod. Here is one of their podcasts.

Traditional ad-driven news still works

I still occasionally visit websites like Reuters and Associated Press for the news as they stick to reporting and are generally unbiased. Their ads are a bit in your face but I can live with that. However, their cookie business of tracking, snooping, and sharing of my data is creepy and reminiscent of Facebook.

Associated Press News

Unlike the media big names like NYT and BBC that keep churning out trash, I have noticed that the small but professional media shops are able to successfully hack it online. They do this by doubling down on the basics of journalism: research, reporting, and analysis, and seem to be doing fine with the traditional advertising model. Here’s an example in the Indian context: good, old-fashioned, research and analysis, minus any personal biases.

Innovating to meet the need for reliable news

With even old stalwarts like BBC showing a distinctive bias in their news reports (BBC’s India coverage is as negative or maybe worse than NYT ), there is definitely a market for news of a different kind.

C-Span is one such innovation. They deliver US government news without filters, by simply giving you live or recorded video feeds of whatever is happening in the US Senate and the US House of Representatives. This way, you get to hear what’s actually being said by the US government without being forced to make do with a biased interpretation by a third party.

Conclusion

When the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, her son (and future PM), Rajiv Gandhi tuned in to the BBC to confirm it was true.

Those days are gone forever. Though we no longer trust institutions like the BBC, our need for the truth is even more crucial in a world where we are all much more closely connected than ever before.

The good thing is if we look hard enough, we can still find our truth-sayers.

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