I was on a call last week (or was it three weeks ago? who can even remember anymore) with someone about something that is somewhat irrelevant to the topic of this post. To be as vague as possible, she is a person who has responsibilities with large gatherings of people. In the conversation I said something along the lines of “In light of the mayor’s shelter-in-place proclamation this morning…”, and was interrupted with “I didn’t hear about that. Where did you hear that?” I informed her that I had just finished watching the mayor’s press briefing on online and that he announced the City Council’s decision to shut down all nonessential businesses and gatherings for at least two weeks.
“Oh,” she said. “Are you sure?”
“Am I sure about what?”
“Are you sure the mayor said that?”
“Uhh, yes. I just watched him say that. It was live streamed on the local news websites.”
“Oh,” she replied, “Well, I don’t watch the news. You can never know if they are telling you the truth these days. What news site were you watching?”
As if there is a different Waco mayor giving a separate briefing for each different news website.
Of course you know, she’s not alone. Distrust of “the media” is rampant. And the reasons are legion and have been hashed and rehashed continuously: The expansion of the news cycle from once a day to once a minute with cable and then internet news outlets requires constant content, often creating sloppy and careless processes for gathering facts; The loss of profits have shuttered local news outlets, leaving gaps in the information we receive, gaps that are filled with politics and celebrities, (but I repeat myself,) because that is what people pay attention to; News outlets, especially on television and the internet, have blurred the lines between news and opinion, creating an audience that can’t tell the difference. And on, and on, and on.
This situation requires one of two responses. The wiser but less traveled path is to be more discerning. People who choose this road learn to be medial literate. They understand that while they may share the same view of the world as, say, Rachel Maddow on one side or Sean Hannity on the other, that these two are opinion personalities and are choosing to highlight some facts and minimize others. (Side note: I am not suggesting that Rachel Maddow is the Sean Hannity of the left or that Sean Hannity is the Rachel Maddow of the right. Simply that their career is opinion, not reporting.) People who walk this road read and view multiple sources and can be just, or ideally, more, critical of the sources with which they agree than those with which they disagree.
Note that this does NOT mean that they think all sources are equal and that there are always two or more valid sides to every argument, though that is sometimes the case. Discernment doesn’t make them the perpetual referee, calling “balls and strikes” as if they don’t have a stake in the game. It simply means they can step outside the game and see the things their team gets wrong and that the other team gets right.
The other response is simply to wave all media off as distrustful, like the lady in my story above did. The irony in this is that these people actually trust media even more than the first group. They just trust the wing of the media that says all other media should be distrusted. Or, they take the “all media is bad” line to new levels and argue with everyone about everything, because everyone’s information sources are bad. Except, of course, their’s, which is no information source at all except what they glean from other’s with whom they distrust.
(This is a side note that is only somewhat relevant, but I just have to fit it in here somewhere. Before a certain group of people I often sparred with on social media unfriended me after the 2016 election, there were numerous times when they would post a story about Obama or one of the Clintons with the line “Why isn’t the mainstream media covering this?!” They became apoplectic when I kindly reminded them that the story they shared was from NBC or CNN.)
I suppose, though, there is a third response that I haven’t given much thought to until now. It is a detailed, cumbersome plan. But if you care about the world and what is going on with it, and you have written off all or most media sources as untrustworthy, then the time should be worth it for you. Here’s what you do…
- Become an expert in every field of news that you need to know about. This doesn’t mean you have to get a college degree in everything, but it does mean you have to learn how to read all the source material in each field. For example: If you don’t trust what “the media” is telling you about, say, the recent stimulus bill that was passed unanimously in the Senate, almost unanimously in the House, and signed by the President, then you don’t have to believe what they are saying. But if you want to know about the bill without the media, you are going to need to read it. This will be a difficult process for several reasons, not least of which is its length. Coming in at 880 pages, it would be the longest book I have ever read, if you don’t count the Bible. In addition to the 880 pages, some of the provisions in the bill refer to other laws, so you you are gong to need to read up on those as well. But even more difficult will be learning the language of the primary text. Because the bill is written with the aim to become law, it has a certain, um, legal quality to it. Get used to endless loops of “whereas” and “therefores”, and pages upon pages of definitions for things that you thought needed no definition.
And this only covers politics. If you are interested in an unmediated steam of information about, say, COVID-19, then get ready to brush up on your epidemiology, chemistry, and research methods, among many other subjects. If you are interested in wars, then learning a detailed history of countries and regions and cultures from MULTIPLE perspectives is going to be a must before you can even begin to understand what a particular battle or conflict means. And I haven’t even brought up the economy, space, environment, the arts, and a thousand other subject you are going to want to know about without the help of those pesky reporters.
- Make personal visits to the eyewitnesses of events that you need to know about. Since you can’t trust those pesky reporters to be telling you the truth about a drug deal gone bad or the non-profit executive who embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars, you’re going to need to knock on some doors yourself if you are going to get accurate information.
One thing you need to know about this is that some people will tell you the truth, but only if you promise not to use their name. This is often to protect them from harm or retribution. You may need to take their word for it, but you should never assume what they are telling you is true until multiple people confirm what they have told you, and it seems clear to you that their stories have not been colluded and, more or less, add up. If you use these unnamed sources in telling your story once, people may have a hard time believing you until the light of time has revealed your sources to be correct. If the light of time proves your sources incorrect on that story, then look for others to view you with a suspicious eye. If it happens for multiple stories, then look for people to no longer listen to you. But if you build a reputation over years and decades of your sources being correct far more often than not, then you will be seen as a trusted news source.
- Correct your mistakes. You’ll get things wrong from time to time. From bad or incomplete information to errors in editing, the flawed human condition will show up almost daily. You don’t have to put a spotlight on your mistakes and retractions, but if I know you have written them somewhere, I am going to be more likely to trust you.
- Tell the truth and get multiple perspectives. Since you are so much more reasonable than “the media” that you distrust, then you will have no trouble telling the truth, even when it makes your side look bad. Sometimes we find out about decisions or motivations that help further our desired outcome in the world, but which are otherwise unethical or illegal. Sometimes the people we thought were evil, and that we have a vested interest in portraying them as such, turn out to be instruments of mercy and grace. Sometimes the people who champion the causes we are passionate about end up beating their wives or cheating on their taxes or misusing drugs. If you want to be trusted, you can’t gloss over or “what about” their failings because they otherwise are on your side.
- If you do all this enough and people decide you are a valuable resource, they may start paying you to do it. If that is the case, then everything in the previous section– the truth telling despite other interests– becomes even more important, because you have to be as welling to tell the truth about the person who pays you as anyone else.
If you can do all these things, then congratulations! You no longer need “the media.” You have become your own media. Just don’t get pissed when, after all your effort– the research, the truth telling, the time, the trust building– you tell someone a fact and they respond with, “Well, I just don’t know who to believe.”