Poor Media Literacy Spawns Fake News Crisis

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Two and half years ago I wrote about failing literacy in America, caused in part by evolving digital media types. The average citizen is losing the ability to understand the written word, and cannot discern quality information online based on text. Never did I imagine that a crisis would come to a fore as quickly as it has with this year’s fake news crisis.

In 2014 I wrote, “Part of literacy… is being able to delineate quality information from bad data. In the visual world, that includes producing and consuming quality media in a loud environment.”

Since then we have witnessed the election of Donald Trump, Pizzagate, and the general rise of digital fake news. Today, any persona has the ability to dismiss any other group or media outlet as biased.

As a result, less trust exists for the media. Even triangulating the facts behind a story does not guarantee the data offered is actual truth. In fact, it takes a chorus of diverse voices to make even the unwilling yield to truth. Still, liars and those who want to refute such stories — propagandists like Donald Trump, for example — can call it a “conspiracy.”

The ability to widely disseminate bad information and have it shared with trusting peers creates what is now being called a post-truth reality. There is no fact that can withstand the battering of the adamantly wrong and intentionally incorrect. That is scary, my friends.

Most Adults Cannot Discern Quality Information

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The average American is not prepared to learn or understand information online. A recent Pew study showed that sixty percent of American adults don’t know whether the information they are consuming online is trustworthy.

There is no obvious answer for our digital literacy crisis. People are not questioning what they read online. Worse, they are unable to prepare their own children and grandchildren to discern quality information online, either.

This leaves the imparting of media literacy skills to our schools. As someone currently working in the edtech space, I can tell you that America’s schools are just coming to understand how to best implement online learning. Some schools are very good at it, others don’t even have basic computing devices for their children.

In addition to understanding how to consume information online, parents and educators must learn and teach how to research the information they are receiving. Questioning information must become second nature. We need to ask questions like:

  • Is this information from a credible source?
  • What data is providing the basis for this story?
  • Is the research reliable and based on statistically relevant data (whether it’s a video of an event or a study of thousands of people)?
  • Are there similar stories and data that support the source?

These are basic questions that the average American doesn’t ask online. Instead, we simply trust the source who shared that information. Whether it is a peer sending a story via email or a social network algorithm, the online trust economy created by digital media channels has demonstrated its truest weakness.

Slanted News

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As social media has risen and traditional media have lost market share, news outlets have moved to tabloidesque journalism from formerly trustworthy brands. We have also seen media fracture to cater to smaller demographics, which in turn has created polarized community groups. Most media outlets serve their smaller constituencies with sensational stories drummed up to captivate the human mind. Click bait rules the day.

A younger, smaller media corps with less seasoned editors behind them now write sensational headlines with shaky content. These stories lack the factual quality that even a second tier news outlet would have demanded two decades ago.

Unfortunately, people fall prey to the sensational. The human mind processes it as entertainment and humor, and then latches onto it as fact. The human mind is naturally attracted to the sensational, and when they share this “news” they receive endorphin affirmation from likes and comments.

Then there are those who seek to sway minds with fake news, propaganda disguised as tabloid news. These stories have been deployed through the interwebs, and in actuality through the centuries, with great damage to society.

Today, sensational and fake news stories spread like wildfire thanks to the Internet. Facebook has moved from its original intent to connect people to a viral mechanism to misinform them.

A cycle has been created with likes falling along party lines. With bad information comes unwieldy results. And here we are, a world where the very truth itself can be debated and hucksters can use propaganda and smeer tactics to convince the public they are right.

My News Experiment

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In the wake of the Trump election, I found myself needing to read more my then narrow group of political news media, primarily CNN, the New York Times, and Politico. I started reading more conservative outlets, the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, as well as the Washington Post and USA Today. In addition, I tried Breitbart News but found it to be so malicious and ridiculous that I could not stomach it. Don’t get cocky, liberals, I could say the same thing about Jezebel.

My overall assessment surprised me. While groups of media tended to cover similar stories — e.g. “liberal media” outlets the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times and the conservative group of the WSJ, and Fox News — none of them reported stories in the same way. Here is a masthead by masthead review:

CNN: Sensational and over the top. Pure tabloid, almost none of it seems well grounded.

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Fox News: Sometimes grounded, but extremely slanted towards the conservative. Runs a fair amount of link-bait chum that leans towards the malicious. When Fox owns a story favoring moderates or liberals, you know it’s true. They tend to be slow to publish stories that show Trump in a negative light.

New York Times: Very grounded, but written with a liberal slant. There’s great journalism here, but like Fox, when a story favors the conservative, it tends to be when the facts are in their favor, AND the story is big.

POLITICO: Pretty balanced in its news coverage with the exception of representing the political establishment (as a trade rag would be). So Trump coverage has been, but is increasingly less so, shocked and sensational. The zeitgeist has been accepted.

USA Today: The rare moderate masthead, USA Today plays it in the middle, and reports when facts are available. A fair barometer for breaking news.

Wall Street Journal: Similar to the New York Times, this paper is very grounded with great journalism, albeit a conservative slant. The conservatism on display here is that of big business, and as such it remains committed to facts, and will print a story favoring liberalism or anti-Trump if it is proven true or if it is pro-business. All political stories seem to be on delay here, a clear sign of careful vetting.

Washington Post: Grounded, but not as much as the New York Times. It still has a penchant for running the sensational, and can’t resist a good Kelly-Anne Conway quote (yuck). I take their anti-Trump slant as a partisan view.

As a result of broadening my spectrum, I do not trust CNN anymore. It’s pure junk. I also am not likely to trust Fox News and sadly, I don’t trust the Washington Post as much as I used to. In addition, if both the New York Times AND the Wall Street Journal agree on a story then it is almost certainly true.

Low Quality Information Creates a Wild and Ignorant Society

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The biggest take away from my informal experiment was the lack of integrity several of these outlets have when it comes to delivering “news” to their stakeholders. In the case of the more tabloid-esque outlets, it’s clear clicks and eyeballs matter more than the quality of journalism. They are purveyors of the sensational.

Perhaps more disconcerting, these outlets are some of the most consumed news producers in the United States. The study does not include the less reputable outlets that spawned the fake news crisis debated so vigorously over the past two months.

We have seen the results, and they are wild. Though people read and watch news online, because of their information sources, they remain ignorant. And worse, they are adamant about being informed.

To date we’ve seen Facebook offer algorithmic promises at resolving the issue. But given the intrinsic desire of the human mind to fancy the sensational, will it be enough? I don’t think so.

In the end, we must look at the root cause. And to overcome, we must come to know ourselves. We must educate ourselves to discern online information and then demand quality. Digital literacy is the answer, in my opinion, not algorithms to protect people from their own inability to understand information.

What do you think?

The Washington Post Proves You Can’t Trust the Media

News sources today suffer from an accuracy problem. Journalists are under pressure to publish first in a dramatic buzz-worthy way to drive traffic. And there are fewer journalists. Those that remain are younger and less experienced, and they have to produce more content. The end result is an alarming amount of inaccurate stories that are tabloidesque in nature. This is true of small and large media outlets alike, as evidenced by a series of stories produced by the Washington Post‘s sports section in the past two weeks.

Last week a media debacle unfolded for the Washington Nationals, largely created by errant Washington Post articles. The news that Bud Black was hired as the Nationals Manager — a story reported by the Washington Post’s James Wagner and then echoed across every sports rag in the country — was wrong. Instead they hired Dusty Baker.

When the tsunami of reporters descended on the strange twist, they shellacked Nationals ownership for underbidding Black and being only willing to extend a two-year contract at no more than $2 million per year, plus incentives. Leading the charge was the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore (whose Twitter bio reads “Riding the line between honesty and schmucky journalist piling on”), who tarred and feathered the owners as out of touch, insulting, and cheap.

Personally, I thought the coverage was vindictive. Keep in mind Kilgore authored a series of Washington Post “expose” style articles at the end of the season detailing the Nationals horrid downward spiral. Again, ownership and management was tarnished (it’s never the players fault, is it?).

Where the Post Went Wrong

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There were two primary points the Post missed in the Bud Black/Dusty Baker story. At issue in the original story were Wagner’s nebulous sources, “according to multiple people familiar with the situation.”

Better sources were needed (says Captain Obvious after the fact). Every sports magazine and news outlet across the country that cited Wagner’s story as the definitive source should be ashamed of their blind shallow reporting.

At the Baker press conference, GM Mike Rizzo stated that he had told reporters that he wouldn’t go to print with the story, but the Post ignored him. Then on a local sports radio show, Rizzo said, “the media jumped the gun.” Dusty Baker said he hadn’t heard from the Nationals at the time the Black story came out, and felt hurt. In hindsight, maybe that was the ultimate sign that the managerial hire wasn’t finished.

An even bigger whiff was the Kilgore article slamming the Lerners’ character for not wanting to hire a manager for more than two years at a $2 million clip. The reason is simple: GM Mike Rizzo’s contract is up at the end of next year. After the horrid Matt Williams debacle, the terrible Papplebon trade, and horrific bullpen and bench moves over the past two years, the Lerners might be losing faith in Rizzo. The 2016 season is a make or break year for Mike Rizzo’s tenure with the Nationals.

Baseball Analyst Steve Phillips, a former general manager, spoke on the 106.7 show Grant and Danny on November 4 (segment 5). Phillips was quick to point out that new GMs don’t like to inherit managers. They hire their own manager as soon as possible. No GM wants to inherit a manager with an odious four or five year contract from his predecessor. So new Nationals Manager Dusty Baker really has one year to save Rizzo’s job, two to save his own.

As for the salary amount, that’s business. And in the end, Baker agreed to the $2 million a year salary plus another $3 million in potential bonuses. If the rate was too low, the position would have been unfulfilled.

Bad Reporting Is the Norm

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The past few months of the Washington Post‘s sports coverage reminded me more of the National Enquirer than a storied news outlet. Woodward and Bernstein did not write these pieces. Instead, the articles read more like ESPN gaffes. The 24 hour network has been know to incorrectly publish stories as quickly as possible and ducking responsibility for them.

Poorly researched dramatic news stories are normal now. Reporters are strapped. They have to do more with less, and the end result is increasing errors and over-the-top drama. That’s across all types of media. There are no sacred mastheads anymore. Every outlet has a bias, and most reporters are chumming the social network waters for the most shares.

Blind faith in the media is a mistake. Triangulate sources, and make sure different articles are not citing the same originating story. More than anything, question everything you read and see.

Maybe I am wrong, perhaps the Washington Post printed a retraction on the last page of the sports section at some point over the past week. That’s where such errors are usually buried unnoticed by the masses. Who knows? I don’t read a physical print paper anymore (do you?).

More importantly, are there any trustworthy news sources out there anymore?