Draft of Chapter 2

Here’s the second in a series of chapter drafts of the Mediactive book. (Here’s everything I’ve posted so far.) Remember, this is a draft, not the final version, though my editor and I believe we’re fairly close. Feel free to chime in with ideas about what I’ve missed and especially what I have gotten wrong, or send email. The chapter begins after the jump. (Note: Some of the HTML is weird, and the footnote links aren’t working right.)

Chapter 2

Becoming an Active User: Principles

“What I like about April Fool’s Day: One day a year we’re asking whether news stories are true. It should be all 365.”

The above is a Twitter “tweet” by Prentiss Riddle (@pzriddle) of Austin, Texas. He posted it on April 1, 2008. It’s a line we should all live by.

Why don’t we ask ourselves, every day, whether what we’re reading, hearing and watching is trustworthy? The fact that we don’t, for the most part, is a vestige from those era when we watched “Uncle” Walter Cronkite deliver the headlines, when Cronkite was called the most trusted person in America. It’s a vestige, as noted in the introduction, of a time when we sat back and consumed our media.

I’ll say again, as well: We can no longer afford to be passive consumers. Rather, we need to be active users of media, whether we’re using the media to be better informed or participating more directly in its creation and evolution. In this chapter we’ll look at the core principles for turning mere consumption into active learning.

Even those of us who spend a good deal of our time creating media are still consumers as well. In fact, we are and always will be more consumers than creators. When we lapse in applying the principles of consumption, we let our readers and viewers down. Following the principles will let us avoid the embarrassments that come when poor journalism is exposed by bloggers or other news outlets.

Principles of Media ‘Consumption’

The principles in this chapter grow mostly from common sense; they involve the exercise of skepticism, judgment, free thinking, questioning, and understanding. Like all principles they don’t change over the years, even as tactics, tools and techniques do change, often rapidly. Essentially, they add up to something, beyond what’d called critical thinking, that we don’t have enough of today: critical analysis.

The following sections look closely at each principle. At the end of the chapter, I’ll step back for the more philosophical question of how we can persuade ourselves to, as a smart media critic has written, “take a deep breath” as we read, watch and listen to the news. The next chapter will show ways to add these ideas to your daily media intake.

1. Be skeptical of absolutely everything. [a1]

We can never take it entirely for granted that what we read, see, or hear from media of any kind is trustworthy. This caution applies to traditional news organizations, blogs, online videos, Facebook updates, and every other scrap of news that comes our way.

The only rational approach, then, is skepticism.

I don’t have to tell you that traditional media organizations have been slipping in quality as their businesses become less stable. You’ve seen this for yourself, no doubt, if you still read your local newspaper. In theory, traditional journalism has procedures in place to avoid errors and wrong-headed coverage. But even the best journalists make factual mistakes, sometimes serious ones, and we don’t always see the corrections. As I write this, for example, the Washington Post has still not corrected an editorial based on a false pretense, seven weeks after publication and despite having been informed of its mistake.[i]

Anyone who’s been covered — that is, been the subject of a journalist’s attention — knows the inevitable small flaws that creep into even the best journalists’ work. And anyone sufficiently familiar with a complex topic or issue tends to spot small, and sometimes large, mistakes in coverage of that topic. When small errors are endemic, as they’ve become in an era of hurry-up news, rational people learn to have at least a small element of doubt about every assertion not backed up by unassailable evidence.

Matters are worse, and the audience response potentially more troubling, when journalists get big issues wrong, often by simply failing to do their jobs. Most worrisome are errors of omission, where journalists fail to ask the hard but necessary questions of people in power. The American press’s near-unanimous, bended-knee reporting during the run-up to the Iraq War was just one catastrophic recent example.  Another was the failure to notice the financial bubble—in fact, as journalists were among its most ardent promoters—that may still lead the world into a new, Greater Depression.

Both failures demonstrated that all-too-common activity that constitutes much of modern reporting: stenography for the powers-that-be. The Washington press corps and financial journalists, in particular, have shown again and again that they crave access to the rich and powerful more than they care about the quality of their journalism. This is not entirely surprising. But it’s no coincidence that the best journalism we find is often done, as in the case of the Knight Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington Bureau between 2002 and 2006, by newspaper reporters and editors who have less access to the people in charge and spend more time asking real questions of the people who work for the people in charge.

The two-sides fallacy

Another reason to be skeptical is modern journalism’s equally unfortunate tendency of assigning apparently equal weight to opposing viewpoints when one is right and the other is wrong, or where the “sides” are overwhelmingly mismatched. This is often called “balance” by journalists who are typically afraid that one political faction—typically the right wing—will accuse them of being too liberal.  It is not balanced, of course, to quote a lie next to the truth. To use an admittedly extreme example, you don’t need a quote from Hitler when you’re doing a story about the Holocaust. Nor is it showing balance to quote a climate-change denier in every story about global warming—not when scientists who study these issues have concluded with rare, near-universal fervor that climate change is not only real but an existential threat to civilization if not our species. In a mid-decade study[1], media researchers Jules and Maxwell Boykoff, wrote that “53 percent of the articles gave roughly equal attention to the views that humans contribute to global warming and that climate change is exclusively the result of natural fluctuations” while “35 percent emphasized the role of humans while presenting both sides of the debate, which more accurately reflects scientific thinking about global warming.” I don’t doubt the situation has improved since then, however.

Sometimes the dissemblers are genuine believers in what they say, even if they marshall non-factual evidence for it. Worse are the paid liars, the people whose jobs are to manufacture fear, doubt, and uncertainty about truth. The tobacco industry’s long and infamous record of denying and obfuscating about the dangers of its products was just one of many such cases where deep pockets were enough to forestall, but not ultimately prevent, wider public understanding.

Paid to persuade

Even more insidious are the people who are selling things but hiding their own tracks. If you follow any major issue, you are encountering them, though you may not know it. They work for “think tanks” and lobbying firms paid by political and corporate interests, putting out widely quoted reports, generating commentary that often appears in newspapers and on TV, seeding blogs and comment threads, and generally trying to sell the products or ideas of the people paying them. I call this opinion laundering. We’ll never be able to stop it, in part because freedom of speech comes into play here, but at least we can try to spot it, as we’ll discuss in Chapter 3.

Whom do we trust? Sometimes the wrong people. According to the Edelman public relations company’s annual survey of trusted institutions, “people like me” are considered the most reliable—ranked above traditional media and others. This is a questionable attitude. I trust a software-programmer friend to help me understand certain kinds of technology; but I don’t have any idea whether he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to wine, and I factor that accordingly into our conversations.

The liars, dissemblers, and opinion launderers are contemptible. But remember that they rely on credulous journalists who are too lazy or fearful to do their jobs properly. They also rely on you not to be asking questions yourself.

Sidebar: The Apple Scare

In October 2008, someone using the pseudonym johntw posted an item to CNN’s “iReport” site claiming that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, had suffered a major heart attack. This claim made its way to a financial blog and circulated quickly. Apple’s shares tumbled briefly, recovering when it became clear that the entire posting was a hoax.

The incident led to something of a frenzy, including widespread condemnations of citizen journalism. In my own blog I urged people to calm down. CNN got used. Maybe it was an innocent mistake. Quite possibly, however, this was the work of someone whose intention was to briefly torpedo the Apple share price. As of this writing, while it’s clear what happened, we still don’t know who did it or precisely why.

But it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. False reports have been posted to public-relations wires, including the semi-famous Emulex case in 2000, when a fraudster pulled just this kind of stunt, and was caught and punished.

CNN’s iReport had been running this kind of risk for some time. The labeling of the site has never been, in my view, sufficiently careful to warn readers that they should not take for granted that the postings by semi-anonymous individuals are accurate — or that readers who might make any kind of personal or financial decision based on what they see on the site are idiots. CNN should have shouted the warning. But the news channel did learn from the experience. Today, if you go to the site a popup appears, saying, among other things

So you know: iReport is the way people like you report the news. The stories in this section are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post. Only ones marked ‘CNN iReport’ have been vetted by CNN.

Is that enough? It helps. Yet not every news reporting outlet—traditional or new-media—can be counted on to disclose such things, despite the fact that they all should. What does that suggest? We bear our own responsibility to be skeptical, especially when we have little or no clarity about the source.

The fact that Apple’s stock dropped, albeit briefly, was testament to the sellers’ own stupidity. Yes, they were victims in a sense of the fraud. And they had every right to be angry at supposedly responsible financial bloggers who picked up the false report and repeated it (though the bloggers did qualify their reports by saying they didn’t know whether the story was true). The sellers mostly had themselves to blame. They were fools not to take a second to consider the source, which was not CNN at all but a pseudonymous writer.

Investors fall into a special category as news consumers. They tend to operate on a hair trigger so they can profit from news before other investors act and wipe out their advantage. They need, as a result, to be careful on multiple fronts — because the more they have at stake the less they can afford to rush to judgment based on anything but trusted sources.

2. While skepticism is essential, don’t be equally skeptical of everything

It’s not surprising that more and more of us are giving into the temptation to be cynical. Institutions we once trusted have proved unworthy, in an era when greed and zealotry have fed lies and manipulation to further personal and political goals, and when the people who should have been pushing back the hardest — including journalists — have failed in so many ways.

This generalized cynicism feeds the problem. If we can’t be bothered to know who’s pushing lies, on the false premise that everyone must be lying, we give the worst people even more leeway to make things worse for the rest of us.

That’s why it’s insane to generalize about our information sources, and why I want to tear what’s left of my hair out when a Big Media bigot starts talking about “those bloggers” as if bloggers were all the same — or, for that matter, when a blogger talks about the evil MSM (mainstream media) as if there were no differences among journalism organizations.

I’ll discuss more in the next chapter some of the ways we can sort out what’s true and false. But the vital point here is that we have to give some level of trust to people who earn it. It doesn’t mean we turn over our brains to, say, the New York Times or the Economist, but it does mean that we trust them more than, say, the celebrity-driven tabloid that exists not to help us make good decisions but rather to be entertained. Nor does it mean that we rely entirely on what a single blogger, however talented, tells us about a narrow niche topic. It means using judgment.

When I watch a movie and see a commercial product, I take it for granted that the company selling the product has paid the film production company to place the product in the movie. I presume it’s an advertisement embedded in the entertainment, no more or less.

Our kids have embeddd this thinking into pretty much all the media they use, says danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft who’s become perhaps the preeminent expert on young people and social media. They assume, she says, that “somebody’s trying to tell them a story and trying to manipulate them.” If adults tend to separate news media from mainstream entertainment media, teens have a naturally media-critical sense

that they’re being given a story for some particular reason and they know people are making money off of it…’Hmm, why are these people trying to tell me this?’  But it’s not a level of in-depth media criticism, and so there’s just this sort of — ‘Hmm, do I trust this?  I trust my friends and what they tell me much more than I’ll trust what these entities are telling me.’

Is that good or bad or something in between? Boyd worries that the young people aren’t thinking things through in a truly critical way.

We don’t live in an environment where teachers or parents or the people that are part of your adult world are actually helping you make sense of it and figure out how to be critically aware, but also to read between the lines to get something out of it.  So as a result we end up throwing away the baby with the bathwater.  Or we throw away all of it.  We say — all of it must be irrelevant to us.  When in fact there is a lot that is relevant.  And this is where we need to get media literacy actually at a baseline into everyday conversations, where it’s not saying that everything should be just consumed or rejected, but something where you consume critically.

We’ll come back to this in Chapter 8, in a broader discussion of what has been called media literacy. But we do need to ask ourselves what kind of society our kids will inherit if they don’t trust or believe anyone but their friends, even when their friends, however smart and well-meaning, don’t know what they’re talking about in all kinds of areas.

3. Go outside your personal comfort zone

The “echo chamber” effect—our tendency as human beings to seek information that we’re likely to agree with—is well known. To be well informed, we need to seek out and pay attention to sources of information that will offer new perspectives and challenge our own assumptions. This is easier than ever before, due to the enormous amount of news and analysis available on the net.

The easiest way to move outside your comfort zone is simply to range widely. If you’re an American, read Global Voices Online (I am an advisor), a project that aggregates blogging and other material from outside the North America. If you are a white American, stop by Black Planet and other sites offering news and community resources for and by African Americans. Follow links in blogs you normally read, especially when they take you to things the author disagrees with.

Diversity can be a little harder to find in traditional media than online media, but there are excellent publications focusing on different political points of view, different ethnic and national groups, and other types of differences. Spring for a subscription or pick up a recommended book on a topic you don’t know about.

Whatever your world view, you can find educated, articulate people who see things differently based on the same general facts. Sometimes they’ll have new facts that will persuade you that they were right; more often, no doubt, you’ll hold to the view you started with—but you may have more nuance on the matter.

Challenge Your Own Assumptions

Have you ever changed your mind about something? I hope so.

Evidence matters. One of the most serious critiques of today’s media ecosystem is the ability of people to seek out only what they believe, and to stick with that. Television news programming is especially insidious. As Jon Garfunkel, one of the most thoughtful thinkers on new media at his Civilities.net site and longtime commenter on my blog, notes:

In October 2003, the Program of International Policy at the University of Maryland polled people about their perceptions of the Iraq war and corresponded it with the media they watched/read. The results aren’t at all surprising:

“Those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely.” [2]

By all means you should constantly be looking for evidence to support the things you believe. But look as well for evidence that what you believe may not be true.

Rush Limbaugh infuriates me. I loathe the way he and other “conservatives” promote dictatorial government when it comes to security and personal liberty but have no patience for equal opportunities in life for those who are born and raised with a boot on the back of their necks. Yet I regularly read and listen to what Limbaugh and his ilk say, because sometimes they make good points, and I can learn something useful.

Going outside your comfort zone has many benefits. One of the best is knowing that you can hold your own in a conversation with people who disagree with you. But the real value is being intellectually honest with yourself, through relentless curiosity and self-challenge. That’s what learning is all about. You can’t understand the world, or even a small part of it, if you don’t stretch your mind.

4. Ask more questions

This principle goes by many names: research, reporting, homework, etc. The more personal or important you consider the topic at hand, the more essential it becomes to follow up on the media about that topic.

The Web has already sparked a revolution in commerce, as potential buyers of products and services discover relatively easy ways to learn more before the sale. No one with common sense buys a car today based solely on an advertisement. We do our research on the Web and in other media, and arm ourselves for the confrontation with the dealer.

There’s a very general lesson in this caveat emptor behavior. We generally recognize the folly of making any major decision about our lives based on something we read, hear or see. But do we also recognize why we need to dig deeply to get the right answers? We need to keep investigating, sometimes in major ways but more often in small ones, to ensure that we make good choices.

The rise of the Internet has given us, for the first time in history, a relatively easy way to go deeper on the topics we care about the most. We can ask questions, and we can get intelligent answers to these questions.

This has limits, of course. No one expects you or me to travel to Afghanistan to double-check the reporting from the New York Times (though we should maintain a healthy sense of skepticism even there). But there’s no excuse for not checking further into the closer-to-home information that informs your daily life.

Near the end of the Cold War, President Reagan frequently used an expression, “Trust but verify,” in his dealings with the Soviet Union. He didn’t invent the saying, but it was appropriate for the times. It’s just as rational an approach when evaluating the media we use today.

5. Understand and learn media techniques.

In a media-saturated society, we need to know how digital media work. For one thing, we are all becoming media creators to some degree. Moreover, solid communications techniques are going to be critically important skills for social and economic participation—and this is no longer solely the reading and writing of the past.

Every journalism student I’ve taught has been required to create and operate a blog, not because blogging is the summit of media creation but because it is an ideal entry point into media creation. It can combine text, images, video and other formats, using a variety of “plug-in” tools, and it is by nature conversational. And it is a Web-native form, a natively digital medium that adapts over time. Blogging is a start, but only a start. Over a lifetime, people will pick up many kinds of newer media forms, or adapt older ones.

Media-creation skills are becoming part of the development process for many children in the developed world, less so for children in the developing world. In America and other economically advanced nations, teenagers and even younger children are digital natives.

Learning how to snap a photo with a mobile phone is useful. But it’s just as important to know what one might do with that picture, even more so to understand how that picture fits into a larger media ecosystem. Younger and older people can benefit from education in this area.

And it’s absolutely essential to understand the ways people use media to persuade and manipulate—how media creators push our logical and emotional buttons. As noted earlier, children and adults need to study marketers’ persuasion and manipulation techniques, in part to avoid undue influence, whether the marketers are selling products, opinions, or political candidates.

All this is part of the crucial understanding of how journalism works. The craft and business are evolving, but they still exert an enormous influence over the way people live. In one sense, journalists are an example of a second-order effect of the marketers’ trade, because sellers and persuaders use journalists to amplify messages. But journalists deserve (and themselves should wish for) greater scrutiny for its own sake—to improve journalism and public understanding.

Media criticism has been a somewhat sleepy field until bloggers came along. A few publications and scholarly journals served as semi-watchdogs of a press that had become complacent and arrogant. Journalists themselves rarely covered each other, except in the way they covered celebrities of all kinds. This wasn’t a conspiracy, but it was taken as given that only the most egregious behavior (or undeniable triumph) would be worthy of note in a competitive journal or broadcast.

Thankfully, that’s changing. Bloggers, in particular, have become the most ardent of the new breed of media critics. Some are small-time jerks, dogs chasing cars because it’s their instinct to do so. But many are the real thing: serious, impassioned critics who deserve respect and who are performing the watchdog role on journalists that journalists have failed to perform despite their influence in society.

We will all need to be watching each other’s media, in a sense, not as a society of snitches—after all, the media we create is public—but to help each other sort out the things we can trust. This will be incredibly complicated, but the value will be immeasurable, if we get it right.

Toward a Slower News Culture

On Nov. 5, 2009, in the minutes and hours after an Army officer opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, the media floodgates opened in a now-standard way. A torrent of news reports and commentary poured from the scene, the immediate community, and the Pentagon, amplified by corollary data, informed commentary, and rank speculation from journalists, bloggers, podcasters, Tweeters, texters, and more.

Also standard in this age of fast news was the quality of the early information: utterly unreliable and mostly wrong. The shooter was dead; no he wasn’t. There were two accomplices; no there weren’t. And so on.

One critic, on a website noted for its tendency to publish rumors and worry later about whether they were true, tore into a soldier posting on Twitter what she was seeing, in part because some of what she was reporting was wrong. His point was to attack the voyeuristic forms of citizen journalism that have, in his view, become a pox on our times.

There was plenty of wrong information to go around that day, at all levels of media. Lots of people quoted President Obama’s admonition to wait for the facts,[ii] but almost no one followed it. And almost no one heeded Army Gen. George William Casey Jr.’s advice the following Sunday, not to jump to conclusions “based on little snippets of information that come out.”[iii]

Greg Marx at Columbia Journalism Review was among several[iv] commentators to catalog (some of) the misinformation that raced around. He wrote:

It’s not fair to lay too much of this confusion at the feet of [traditional media] reporters, who are mostly diligent and conscientious, who are basing their claims in good faith on what they are hearing from their sources, and who are under tremendous competitive pressure to get the story first. But on a story like this, tendencies toward error, exaggeration, and inconsistency are built into the system, at least in the first days of reporting. In due time, a clearer picture will begin to emerge; in this case, we’ll even hear from the shooter himself.

There will be plenty of time for analysis. Until then, let’s all take a deep breath.[v]

Like many other people who’ve been burned by believing too quickly, I’ve learned to put almost all of what journalists call “breaking news” into the categories of gossip or, in the words of a scientist friend, “interesting if true.” That is, even though I gobble up “the latest” from a variety of sources, the closer the information is in time to the actual event, the more I assume it’s unreliable if not false.

Yet I’m no different from everyone else in a key respect. When it comes to important (or sometimes trivial but interesting) breaking news, I, too, can react in almost Pavlovian ways from time to time, clicking the Refresh button on the browser again and again. What I don’t tend to do is immediately tweet or send email to friends and family about unconfirmed reports, but if I do pass things like that along I always make it a point to add “if true” to the might-be-news.

What is it about breaking news that causes us to turn off our logical brains? Why do we turn on the TV or click-click-click Refresh or scan the Twitter feeds to get the very latest details—especially when we learn, again and again, that the early news is so frequently wrong?

Ethan Zuckerman, a friend and colleague at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society,[vi] has some ideas:[vii]

  • The media make us do it. As noted below, I give a lot of credence to this one.
  • We’re bored.
  • Knowing the latest, even if it’s wrong, helps build social capital in conversations.
  • We’re junkies for narrative, and hope that we’ll get the fabled “rest of the story” by clicking one more time.

“I suspect there’s some truth to each of those explanations, and I suspect that each is badly incomplete.” Ethan says. “I also suspect that figuring out what drives our patterns of news consumption, and our susceptibility to fast, often-wrong news is critical” for having a sounder grasp of what we can trust.

Slowing the News

There’s a wonderful trend in the world of eating. It’s called the “slow food movement”—a rebellion against fast food and all the ecological and nutritional damage it causes.

We need a “slow news”[viii] equivalent, as Ethan suggested to me at a Berkman Center retreat, held in a rural Massachusetts farmhouse in late 2009. Slow news is all about taking a deep breath.

One of society’s recently adopted cliches is the “24-hour news cycle” — the recognition that the once-a-day, manufacturing-based version of journalism has essentially passed into history for those who consume and create news via digital systems. Now, it’s said, we get news every hour of every day, and media creators work tirelessly to fill those hours with new stuff. Certainly a few newspapers and magazines do provide actual perspective and nuance.

That 24-hour news cycle itself needs further adjustment. The first is that an hourly news cycle is itself too long. The latest can come at any minute in an era of TV police chases, Twitter, and twitchy audiences. Call it the 1,440 minute news cycle.

Rapid-fire news is about speed, which has two main purposes for the provider. The first is human competitiveness, the desire to be first. In journalism newsrooms, scoops are a coin of the realm.

The second imperative is audience. Being first draws a crowd. Crowds can be turned into influence, money, or both. Witness cable news channels’ desperate hunt for “the latest” when big events are under way, even though the latest is so often the rankest garbage.

This applies not just to raw information (often wrong, remember) that’s the basis for breaking news. It’s also the case, for example, for the blogger who offers up the first sensible-sounding commentary that puts the “news” into perspective. The winners in the online commentary derby—which is just as competitive, though for lower financial stakes, as investor sites—are the quick and deft writers who tell us what it means. That they’re often basing these perspectives on lies or well-meaning falsehoods seems to matter less than being early to comment.

I’m not battling human nature. We all want to know what’s going on, and the bigger the calamity the more we want to know—especially if it may affect us directly (if a hurricane is approaching, the latest news is not just interesting but potentially life-saving). Nothing is going to change that, and nothing should.

Nor is this a new phenomenon. Speculation has passed for journalism in all media eras. Every commercial plane crash, for example, is followed by days (now more like minutes and hours) of brazen guessing by so-called experts who, to be sure, are occasionally proved correct after months of actual investigation by the real experts. Sometimes we never know the truth.

New News Cycle

But the advent of 1,440 minute news cycle (should we call it the 86,400 second news cycle?), which brings with it an insatiable appetite for something new to talk about, should literally give us pause. Again and again, we’ve seen that initial assumptions can be grossly untrustworthy.

Consider the Fort Hood shootings. We all know that the Texas shooter wasn’t killed during his rampage, as was first reported. We know it because the story was still fresh enough, and the saturation coverage was ongoing, when reports emerged that he hadn’t been shot dead by law enforcement.

But we all “know” things that were subsequently found to be untrue, in part because journalists typically don’t report outcomes with the same passion and play that they report the initial news. We’ve all seen videos of people who’ve been arrested but who were later acquitted; yet the inherent bias in crime reporting has left reputations of innocent people shattered. And how many of us hear a report that such-and-such product or behavior has been found to raise cancer risk, but never hear the follow up that the report is either false or misleading?

The rapid-fire news system’s abundance of falsehoods has other causes than simple speed, including the decline of what’s supposed to be a staple of journalism: fact checking before running with a story. We’ll come back to this in the next chapter.

As Clay Shirky (also a friend) has observed — in a Twitter Tweet, no less — “fact-checking is way down, and after-the-fact checking is way WAY up.”

Clay’s point lends weight to slow news, to the idea that we all might be wise to think before we react. That is what many failed to do during the early hours and days of the “#amazonfail” situation in April, 2009. As Clay described afterwards:

an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.[ix]

I was one of the people who reacted before I knew the full story. I hope I learned a lesson.

I rely in large part on gut instincts when I make big decisions, but my gut only gives me good advice when I’ve immersed myself in the facts about things that are important. This suggests not just being skeptical—the first of the principles I hope you’ll embrace—but also to wait a bit, for evidence that is persuasive, before deciding what’s true and what’s not.

It comes down to this: As news accelerates faster and faster, you should be slower to believe what you hear — and the harder you should look for the coverage that pulls together the most facts with the most clarity about what’s known and what’s speculation.

Can we persuade ourselves to do this as a normal part of our media use, and as well as deploying those other principles to figure out what we can trust and what we can’t? We can. And if we want to have any reason to trust what we read (hear, etc.), we must.

[1] http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1978

[2] http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/international_security_bt/102.php?nid=&id=&pnt=102&lb=brusc

[2] http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2009/11/obama-speaks-on-fort-hood-as-well-as-high-unemployment/1

[2] http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2009/11/08/restraint_urged_in_fort_hood_s.html?wprss=44

[2] http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/11/06/reporting/index.html

[2] http://www.cjr.org/campaign_desk/jumping_to_confusion.php

[2] http://cyber.law.harvard.edu—I’m a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center and former Fellow. Ethan is a former Fellow as well. I’m also an advisor to Global Voices Online, a project he co-founded and chairs.

[2] http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/11/09/why-we-fall-for-fast-news/—slightly edited, with Ethan’s permission

[2] The notion of slowing things down to achieve more perspective has been in the wild for a while now, though aimed more at the journalists. See Paul Bradshaw’s “slow journalism” observation in a Guardian article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2009/jun/01/channel4-research1); Kirk Ross’ ideas about his North Carolina newspaper (http://pjnet.org/post/1615/); and Matt Thompson’s argument that the Internet “slowing the news cycle down” (http://snarkmarket.com/2005/721). What I’m suggesting, as noted, is much more about audiences.

[2] http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/04/the-failure-of-amazonfail/

[i] The Post suggested that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee should have given the prize to a dead Iranian womain who was shot and killed in the violent aftermath of that nation’s 20009 elections; this was an impossibility since, as anyone could have verified easily, dead people are not eligible for the prize unless they die after they’ve been named as the recipient.

[ii] http://content.usatoday.com/communities/theoval/post/2009/11/obama-speaks-on-fort-hood-as-well-as-high-unemployment/1

[iii] http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2009/11/08/restraint_urged_in_fort_hood_s.html?wprss=44

[iv] http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2009/11/06/reporting/index.html

[v] http://www.cjr.org/campaign_desk/jumping_to_confusion.php

[vi] http://cyber.law.harvard.edu—I’m a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center and former Fellow. Ethan is a former Fellow as well. I’m also an advisor to Global Voices Online, a project he co-founded and chairs.

[vii] http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/11/09/why-we-fall-for-fast-news/—slightly edited, with Ethan’s permission

[viii] The notion of slowing things down to achieve more perspective has been in the wild for a while now, though aimed more at the journalists. See Paul Bradshaw’s “slow journalism” observation in a Guardian article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2009/jun/01/channel4-research1); Kirk Ross’ ideas about his North Carolina newspaper (http://pjnet.org/post/1615/); and Matt Thompson’s argument that the Internet “slowing the news cycle down” (http://snarkmarket.com/2005/721). What I’m suggesting, as noted, is much more about audiences.

[ix] http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/04/the-failure-of-amazonfail/

11 thoughts on “Draft of Chapter 2”

  1. Thanks for posting this Dan.

    A few perspectives:

    One way for media organizations to improve the trust that people have in the information that they report is for them to more thoroughly lnk to their sources. That means that when you run a story about a lawsuit, you publish a copy of the docket so that you can see what the reporter wrote from; when you publish a story based on public records from a FOIA request, you also publish a substantial portion of the original records you received.

    This slows you down, of course, and in a fast paced newsroom there may not be time to be first to the story and also be the one who provides the most complete back story. But I think it’s an important and useful direction and one that will be welcomed by people who want to know way more than the average reader.

    I’ve been watching Wikipedia’s “request for deletion” page and seeing how that editorial team decides which encyclopedia entries get wiped out. The first complaint, “not notable”, is generally because the news media isn’t interested in something. The second complaint, “poorly sourced”, is reserved for writers who can’t back up what they say with enough references that you can verify it yourself. It’s an interesting tug of war.

    1. The failure to link liberally and post documents is amazing to me, and I don’t buy the idea that there’s no time. You can always go back and put it in later.

  2. So great that you’re posting your chapter drafts, Dan.

    I’m sure your editor will point out this kind of stuff as well, but watch out for setting the reader up for a good example without in fact providing the good example. Such as:

    The Washington press corps and financial journalists, in particular, have shown again and again that they crave access to the rich and powerful more than they care about the quality of their journalism.

    That begs for at least two kickass examples–or at the very least, citations.

    Also, your point #5 is so ridiculously key. In fact, I’d add a related paragraph that emphasizes understanding media professionals’ shortcuts. We all tend to take pride in our work. But we also habitually employ shortcuts to save time and effort, and for media professionals, shortcuts can lead to mistakes such as failing to fully question a trusted source or misapplying an old frame to a new situation.

  3. Thanks for the interesting read – here is some feedback from me

    “the celebrity-driven tabloid that exists not to help us make good decisions but rather to be entertained.”
    –> should be ‘… but rather to entertain us’?

    “What is it about breaking news that causes us to turn off our logical brains? ”
    –> I heard someone on a podcast – supernovahub I think – talking about the evolutionary ‘interruption reflex’ (something like that). Basically, we’ve evolved to be hyper-aware of disruptions in the normal flow of our environment, because they may signal danger to us. With the realtime flow of media, this is constant, indeed tailored to jolt us into attention, thus we have to learn to be a bit less inclined to pay attention to everything.

  4. Dan — thanks for quoting me, though I guess I was really just pasting in some other quote there.

    I agree it’s good to read “the other side” — but remember that other side is more than just a few AM talk radio clowns. A liberal can track down some sensible, intelligent conservatives (esp. those that write for the NYT and the WP).


    1. Agree on the NYT’s convervatives, disagree on the Post’s, but you’re right that it’s more than the Fox axis…

  5. Dan — thanks for quoting me, though I wasn’t adding much on top of the academic study. I think my point at the time was simply that not all media institutions have the same lofty goals of truth and fairness.

    What you probably should insert here is some study checking the degree of “diverse media readership” against various populations segments (political leaning / educational level / income). My theory is that most voters simply don’t have enough time to read everything.


    1. Jon, the time issue is indeed critical. I’ve been looking for a study of this sort but haven’t seen one yet….

  6. I’m loving this. A basic overview… a primer based on experience. Meant for those already in the know and for the next generation, a solved rubik’s cube left with instructions on the final 12 moves.

    Been informed by you since the “Living” column in the Merc, we all know it would take time and be ginormous, thanks for blazing the trails. I’m printing out the drafts and looking forward to the release.

    What an important time to be a journalist!

    reading Dan’s columns ever since I could read…

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