Draft of Chapter 3

Here’s the third 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 3

Tools and Techniques for the Mediactive Consumer

Now that we’ve considered some principles, let’s get practical and put those principles into practice. The key is going deeper into the news, leveraging that skepticism and curiosity and common sense toward that moment when you can say to yourself, “Ah, I get it.”

What’s involved? Mostly an adventurous spirit; remember, this is about exploration.

Among other things, you need to:

  • Find trustworthy sources of information
  • Vet sources you don’t already have reason to trust
  • Join the conversation(s)

As always in this book, what follows is far from comprehensive. Rather, it’s a surface-level look at an almost infinitely wide and deep topic. Look for many more specifics and examples at the Mediactive website.

Finding the Good Stuff

At first glance, my daily media routine may sound time consuming: I look at a few news-organization websites, including the home pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal among traditional media, clicking through to articles of particular interest. I periodically glance at headlines in Google Reader or a similar service, collected from a variety of sources, traditional and new, on a variety of places and topics I’ve designated. I scan my email for items—articles, blog posts, videos, data and the like—that friends or colleagues might have flagged. I keep an eye on several Twitter lists, and check to see what a few Facebook friends are discussing. If there’s breaking news I care about, I check back with sites I consider authoritative or at least reliable.

Actually, all of that doesn’t take too long. I used to spend more time reading a couple of newspapers each morning and watching the news in the evening. But I’m vastly better informed now.

I don’t believe everything I read or hear, because I apply the principles in Chapter Two. And when I need to be absolutely sure about something, I dig deeper.

Given the relatively short time that we’ve been living in a digital-media world, it’s common wisdom to say we’re in the earliest days of figuring out how to sort through the flood of information that pours over us each day, hour, minute.. But while there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement in attitudes, tools and techniques, it’s getting hard to count the ways we already have of being better informed.

I use a variety of tools and methods each day. The main ones are my brain, and instinct, applying the principles of Chapter 1 through a variety of filters and tactics.

  • The most essential filters are people and institutions I’ve come to trust. In the days of overwhelmingly dominant mass media, we had little option but to give some trust in those sources, even though we learned that they were deeply flawed institutions that, too often, led us grossly astray or failed to address vital matters, global to local. But they also did, and continue to do (though less and less these days), some of the most important journalism. They’d have held more trust if they’d been less arrogant, more transparent and even slightly conversational with their audiences. But there’s real value, even now, in understanding what a bunch of journalists, including editors, believe is the most important news today in their own communities.
  • Aggregation has become an absolutely essential filter: someone else’s collection of items I might find interesting. There’s machine aggregation and human aggregation, in various combinations. For example:
    • Google News, relentlessly machine-based, isn’t bad as a zietgeist of what journalists around the world believe is important (or was important in the past 24 hours or so), but Google’s almost religious belief in computer programming has detracted from the service’s usefulness.
    • Yahoo once was the leader in aggregation, because it understood the value of human beings in this process. It’s still quite good, though it’s been slipping.
    • Topical aggregation is rising in importance and quality. You can often find a topic-specific collection. I’m a fan of TechMeme for aggregating what’s hot in the tech world, in part because Gabe Rivera, its founder, has clearly seen a vital role for human input.
  • Search has always been useful, but now it’s vital. Yahoo and Google offer excellent news-search systems, letting you use keywords to flag stories of interest. When you settle on searches you find useful, you can scan the results for items you may want to check further. My searches are for things like digital media, entrepreneurship (which I teach) and many other topics of interest to me.
  • Bloggers are some of my best purely human aggregators. The ones with expertise in a particular domain, plus the energy to keep on top of the news, have become valuable brokers in my news consumption. If you’re not following the work of bloggers who go deep into areas you care about, you’re not well informed, period.
  • Twitter has become a must-have alert system. The best “tweeters” keep up a flow of headlines—the 140-character limit on tweets doesn’t allow for much more—that have links to the deeper look into what they’re flagging. Probably the most exciting development in the Twitter ecosystem is precisely that: It’s becoming an ecosystem in which others are creating tools to make it more useful. I’ll talk more about how I publish using Twitter in Chapter 5.
  • An essential tool for keeping track of everything we aggregate is RSS, or really simple syndication. It’s been around for more than a decade, and from my perspective only grows in value despite some suggestions that it’s fading in importance. If you don’t know what RSS can do, you should learn, and we’ll point you at the Mediactive website to some ways to learn more.[1]

Those are only a few of the ways you can find reliable news and information, of course, and the techniques are in many ways still somewhat primitive, especially in the aggregation field. Later in this book I’ll discuss the need for much better combinations of human and machine intelligence; for example, when communities can do more than simply recommend according to popularity, we’ll have vastly better ways to understand what’s happening in the world.

Even as we have more and more ways to find the “good stuff,” as it were, there’s a problem: We’ve also never had so many ways to find things that are useless, or worse.

What could be worse than useless? Information that’s damaging if you act on it, that’s what. So we’re going to spend some time on how to avoid falling for things that are either wrong or the category we might call “dangerous if swallowed.”

A Trust Meter

The first defense is our innate common sense. We all have developed an internal “BS meter” of sorts, largely based on education and experience, for dealing with many of the daily elements of life—including older kinds of media, from the traditional news world. We need to bring to digital media the same kinds of analysis we learned in a less complex time when there were only a few primary sources of information.

We know, for example, that the tabloid newspaper next to the checkout stand at the supermarket is suspect. We have come to learn that the tabloid’s front-page headline about Barack Obama’s alien love child via a Martian mate is almost certainly false, despite the fact that the publication sells millions of copies each week. We know that popularity in the traditional media world is not a proxy for quality.

When we venture outside the market and pump some quarters into the vending machine that holds today’s New York Times or Wall Street Journal, we have a different expectation. Although we know that not everything in the Times or Journal news pages is true, we have good reason to trust it more than not—considerably more.[2] )

Online, any website can look as professional as any other (another obviously flawed metric for quality). And any person in a conversation can sound as authentic or authoritative as any other. This creates obvious problems in the trust arena if people are too credulous.

Part of our development as human beings is the creation of what we might call an internal “BS meter”—a sense of understanding when we’re seeing or hearing nonsense and when we’re hearing the truth, or something that we have reason to credit as credible. Let’s call it, then, a “credibility scale” instead of a BS meter. Either way, I imagine it ranging, say, from plus 30 to minus 30, as in the figure above. Using that scale, a news article in New York Times or Wall Street Journal might start out in strongly positive territory, perhaps at 26 or 27 on the trust meter. (I can think of very few journalists who start at 30 on any topic.)

Now consider a credibility rating of zero. I tell myself, “I have no reason to believe or disbelieve what I’m hearing. So I’m going to simply discount it and move on.” This says nothing about the material beyond an absence of information about and/or experience with the creator.

On my mental scale, it’s entirely possible for someone to have negative credibility, sometimes deeply negative. For example, an anonymous comment on a random blog starts off in negative territory. If the comment is an anonymous attack on someone else, it’s so far in the hole as to be essentially irredeemable, say minus 26 or 27. Why on earth should we believe an attack by someone who’s unwilling to stand behind his or her own words? In most cases, the answer is that we should not. The random, anonymous commenter—whether on a random blog or a traditional news site—would have to work hard even to achieve zero credibility, much less move into positive territory. (More on that below.)

Conversely, someone who uses his or her real name, and is verifiably that person, earns positive credibility from the start, though not as much as someone who’s known to be an expert in a particular domain. A singular innovation at Amazon.com is the “Real Name” designation on reviews or books and other products; Amazon can verify because it has the user’s credit card information, a major advantage for that company (disclosure: I own some Amazon stock). Almost invariably, people who use their real names in these reviews are more credible than those who use pseudonyms. More on this below.

Checking it Out

In late 2009 a journalist in Tennessee wrote a shallow and ill-informed column about citizen journalism. He discussed me and my work for several paragraphs and got almost everything wrong, including a) misspelling my name; b) mis-identifying my current academic affiliation; c) claiming I’d left the news business when I stopped writing a column; and a number of other things. He capped this cavalcade of  mistakes by advising everyone looking at citizen journalism to do what “real” journalist do: to check things out before believing them. I nominated him for the (nonexistent) Irony Hall of Fame (Media Wing).

The experience reminded me, not for the first time, that the news field would greatly improve if every journalist was the subject of this sort of poor journalism — there’s nothing like being covered to understand how flawed the craft can be.  It also highlighted two issues you need to consider when you want to guage the quality of the information you’re getting. One is simple accuracy; in this example, the misspelled name and wrong employer were egregious. The other is the choice of topic and the slant of the reporting; the Tennessee columnist wanted to promote his own craft while slamming something he considered inferior.

Factual errors are part of the journalistic process. They happen, and and in a deadline-driven craft we can understand why. But when errors are blatant and careless, they call into question everything else the journalist does. Worse, when they’re not corrected promptly and forthrightly, is the message of arrogance they send to the audience.

Of course, you can’t check everything out yourself. (You can and should, as I’ll discuss in Chapter 4, be careful about what you create in your own media.) But when you’re looking into something where being wrong will have consequences, and if you are unsure of the source of the information, you have every reason, even an obligation, to check further.

Crap Detection

Howard Rheingold, an author and friend, has been at the forefront of understanding the digital revolution.  In a terrific 2009 essay called Crap Detection 101[3] (riffing off a long-ago line from Ernest Hemingway[4]) he wrote about some of the ways to check things out. Here’s a key quote:

The first thing we all need to know about information online is how to detect crap, a technical term I use for information tainted by ignorance, inept communication, or deliberate deception. Learning to be a critical consumer of Webinfo is not rocket science. It’s not even algebra. Becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of web credibility testing is easier than learning the multiplication tables. The hard part, as always, is the exercise of flabby think-for-yourself muscles….

Fortunately, tools are far more powerful today than they were a decade ago; the bad news is that too many people don’t know about them. In recent years, as so many more people have started to rely on the web for such vitally important forms of information as news, medical information, scholarly research, investment advice, the lack of general education in critical consumption of information found online is turning into a public danger. No, Bill Gates won’t send you $5 for forwarding this chain e-mail, the medical advice you get in a chat room isn’t necessarily better than what your doctor tells you, and the widow of the deceased African dictator is definitely not going to transfer millions of dollars to your bank account. That scurrilous rumor about the political candidate that never makes the mainstream media but circulates as email and blog posts probably isn’t true. The data you are pasting into your memo or term paper may well be totally fabricated.

There are innumerable crap-detection tools and techniques, and people who work hard to help you understand what’s real and what isn’t. Here are a few of my favorites. (As always, we’ll have a much longer list, broken out by topic area, on the Mediactive website.)

Detecting Accuracy

  1. Snopes.com. This site is all about confirming or debunking the stories that race around the Internet every day. Look around Snopes, and be amazed. UrbanLegends.about.com, a site run by the New York Times, is also helpful for sorting out paranoid nuttiness from truth.
  2. FactCheck.org, a political fact-checking site, and its FactChecked.org companion site for students and teachers, help you sort through a few of the political claims tossed around our republic. Your best bet, I’d suggest, is to assume that everything you see in a political advertisement is at best misleading, especially if it’s an attack on a candidate or campaign.
  3. QuackWatch.org is invaluable for debunkery of, you guessed it, bad information about health.
  4. In the experimental category I’m a fan of MediaBugs.org (another project on which I serve as an advisor). Scott Rosenberg, with the help of people like you, is compiling a database of journalistic errors—and whether or when the mistakes are corrected. If he can  get enough buy-in from journalists at all levels in his early experiment in the San Francisco Bay Area, this could become a national resource of note.

Detecting Slant

  1. SourceWatch.org. The Center for Media and Democracy, which leans left politically, has created an invaluable collection about the organizations that seek to persuade us to buy or believe.
  2. Mass media consistently misrepresent science. Ben Goldacre, a British doctor, writer and broadcaster, runs Bad Science[5], where he routinely demolishes crappy reporting in the media. If you follow his work you’ll more easily spot bad science reporting yourself.
  3. Newtrust.net. Fabrice Florin’s project, aimed at persuading communities of readers to grade reports based on a variety of criteria, is a promising approach. I encourage you to join and add your own knowledge to the database. (Note: I’m an advisor to the project.)

Again, this is the briefest list. The key point is that the more something matters to you—the more you have at stake—the more you need to investigate further.

Risks, Statistics, Lies

Asking yourself whether something makes sense is especially relevant in understanding risk. Journalists have been, as a trade, beyond negligent in explaining relative risks. Local television news has been almost criminal, for example, in its incessant hyping of crime even during times when crime rates were plummeting, helping persuade people that danger was growing when it was in fact shrinking. While the individual crimes and victims were all too real, their overall significance was grossly overstated. And legislators, all too happy to “do something” in response to media-fed public fears, often pass laws that do much more aggregate harm than good.

Medical news reports, moreover, tend to vary from ill-informed to downright crazy; the unwillingness of a significant portion of the American population to get vaccinated for the H1N1 flu, based on little but paranoid rumors and media reports, is downright scary. Panic is often the greatest danger, because it leads to bad responses, and when the media fuel panic they are doing the greatest of disservices.

Statistics are a related problem. Too few people understand statistical methods or meaning. If you hear that such and such product or substance is linked to a 50 percent rise in some low-incidence disease, you need to also understand that the likelihood that you’ll get that ailment remains vanishingly small.

These are issues of slant, not accuracy. But they have everything to do with our understanding of the world around us.

Above all, rely on common sense. Always start with that. That first bit of  skepticism can save you a lot of pain later on.

Sidebar: The Wikipedia Question

In May 2009, the Irish Times reported a story that made journalists everywhere cringe. The article, entitled “Student’s Wikipedia hoax quote used worldwide in newspaper obituaries,” began[DG1] :

A Wikipedia hoax by a 22-year-old Dublin student resulted in a fake quote being published in newspaper obituaries around the world. The quote was attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March. It was posted on the online encyclopedia shortly after his death and later appeared in obituaries published in the Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers.[6]

Hoaxes are not new in journalism, but the Wikipedia haters, who are vocal if not all that numerous, were thrilled with this one. It gave them another reason to attack the online encyclopedia.

Certainly the site’s relatively open nature was instrumental in the student’s ability to pull off the hoax in the first place. But a closer examination, including a long note to readers by the Guardian—one of the publications that fell for the hoax—suggested a different lesson. In fact, as Siobhain Butterworth, the newspaper’s “readers’ editor,” observed, Wikipedia community performed well in a) discovering the lie and 2) fixing the article:

Wikipedia editors were more skeptical about the unsourced quote [than newspaper editors who printed obituaries based on the false information]. They deleted it twice on 30 March and when Fitzgerald added it the second time it lasted only six minutes on the page. His third attempt was more successful – the quote stayed on the site for around 25 hours before it was spotted and removed again.

Still, the invented quote was widely used — by people who should have known better. In the Guardian, there was apparently no citation, even to Wikipedia, which would have been a tipoff in the first instance.

As the Guardian’s Butterswoth also noted:

The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source.

That applies to everyone, not just journalists. Wikipedia’s own policies call for all information to be traced back to authoritative references, and articles are routinely flagged when they lack such references:

Content should be verifiable with citations to reliable sources. Our editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong here.[7]

I say this again and again, to students and anyone else who’ll listen:

Wikipedia is often the best place to start — but the worst place to stop.

It’s the best place to start because you’ll often find a solid article about a topic or person. It’s the worst place to stop because that article might be wrong in some particular. A 2005 article in Nature magazine, comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica, only muddied the issue, and not because it didn’t conclusively resolve the question of which is more accurate. The point here is that you should not assume the particular fact you check at a particular moment is true.

But every decent Wikipedia article has something at the bottom that should also appear on newspaper articles online: a long list of links to original or at least credible outside sources including news articles. And every Wikipedia article has a record of every change, down to the smallest detail, going back to the day it was first created.

Moreover, Wikipedia articles of any depth have “meta” conversations about the articles themselves, where the editors discuss or argue among themselves about the quality of the information going into the article and often about the credentials of the editor who’s making the latest changes.

Yes, use Wikipedia—and lots of other sources. Just understand its limitations, and advanages. And if you see something that’s wrong, fix it. More on that in Chapter 4.

Anonymous versus Pseudonymous

As the 2008 presidential campaign wound down, a Fox News TV report relayed a variety of negative attacks on Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, from members of the presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign staff. Palin denounced the attackers—all of whom demanded, and were granted, anonmyity by the news channel—as cowards.

No matter what you think about Palin in general, she was right to be angry. The Fox report was a perfect example of why anonymous critics should not be taken seriously — in fact, why they should usually be flatly disbelieved.

Anonymous sources are one of professional journalism’s worst habits. Their constant appearance in media, especially newspapers and broadcast news outlets that ought to know better, turns otherwise respectable institutions into gossip mongers and invites audiences to doubt what they’re being told.

Ombudsmen at the Washington Post and New York Times have scolded their colleagues not just for their incessant use of anonymous sources but also the journalists’ flouting of internal policies banning what they’re doing. It makes no difference, apparently, because the anonymice, as media critic Jack Shafer calls them, just keep on appearing.[8]

Shafer notes that he’s no absolutist on these things, understanding that in some kinds of situations anonymous sources are vital. We learned about the Bush administration’s illegal wiretapping program against Americans because someone spilled it to the New York Times (though the newspaper unaccountably held the story for a year before publishing it). But we also “learned” — the quotes are deliberate — from the same paper that all kinds of terrible things were happening with regard to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction via anonymice: lies laundered through the newspaper by an administration that was hell-bent to create a case for war.

One of the more ridiculous ways news organizations pretend to be more transparent about an inherently opaque practice is to offer reasons, as explained by the sources, as to why they can’t allow themselves to be identified by name. Occasionally it makes sense, as the Times’ reader respresentative noted when a Good Samaritan at a New York assault didn’t want his name published because the assaliant was still at large. But Hoyt was too much the gentleman when he termed “baffling” a story in which a source was granted anonymity “because he was discussing drug-testing information.”[9]

I have a rule of thumb. When a news report quotes anonymous sources I immediately question the entire thing. I’m skeptical enough about spin from people who stand behind their own words, but downright cynical about the people who use journalist-granted anonymity to push a position or, worse, slam someone else.

When someone hides behind anonymity to attack someone else, you shouldn’t just ignore it. In the absence of actual evidence, you should actively disbelieve it. And you should hold the journalist who reports it in contempt for being the conduit.

New media are a wider world of anonymous and semi-anonymous claims and attacks. The blogger who refuses to identify himself or herself invites me to look elsewhere, unless I’m persuaded by a great deal of evidence that there’s good reason to stick around. And, as I said earlier, the anonymous commenters on blogs or news article deserve less than no credibility on any BS meter; they deserve to start in deep-minus territory. Where would I put the attacks on Palin? Well, given the sources (Fox and the anonymous people launching these verbal grenades), I’d start slightly below zero and wait for some evidence.

Pseudonyms are a more interesting case, and can have great value. Done right, they can bring greater accountability and therefore somewhat more credibility. Content management systems have mechanisms designed to a) require some light-touch registration, even if it’s merely having a working email address; and b) prevent more than one person from using the same pseudonym on a given site. This isn’t as useful as a real name, but it does encourage somewhat better behavior, in part because it’s easier to police. A pseudonymous commenter who builds a track record of worthwhile conversation, moreover, can build personal credibility even without a real name (though I believe real names are almost always better.)

Ultimately, as we’ll discuss later, conveners of online conversations need to provide better tools for the people having the conversations. These would include moderation systems that actually help bring the best commentary to the surface, ways for readers to avoid the postings of people they found offensive, and community-driven methods of identifying and banning abusers.

For all this, I want to emphasize again that we should preserve anonymity, and appreciate why it’s vital. Anonymity protects whistleblowers and others for whom speech can be unfairly dangerous.

But when people don’t stand behind their words, a reader should always wonder why and make appropriate adjustments.

Talking With Journalists (of all kinds)

More and more print journalists are posting their email addresses in the work they publish. They are acknowledging their role in a broadening, emergent media ecosystem, recognizing that news is becoming a conversation instead of a lecture. (Broadcast reporters, for the most part, aren’t nearly so willing to join conversations; their loss.)

Mainstream journalists are congenitally thin-skinned; insecurity seems almost a precondition to employment in traditional newsrooms. This has always been a notable irony, given that the journalism business routinely shoots people off their pedestals, typically after helping install them there in the first place. So when you contact a journalist, you’re likely to get him or her to listen if you’re polite; attack mode is almost always the wrong approach.

The best modern journalists do want to listen, and sometimes they even want your help. In Ft. Myers, Florida, the local newspaper asked its readers for help on a local story involving the water and sewer system. The readers responded, and the newspaper was able to do much better journalism as a result.

Josh Marshall, creator of Talking Points Memo[10] collection of political and policy blogs, has done much of the best work in this arena. He regularly asks his readers for help poring through documents or asking questions of public  officials. (In a later chapter I’ll describe how journalists could do this as a matter of routine, and the kinds of results we might get.)

The recently launched ProPublica.org investigative site, meanwhile, has asked its users to add their expertise in a variety of ways. Its 2009 “Stimulus Spot Check”[11]—a deeper look at whether and how states were using road and bridge construction money from the federal economic stimulus package enacted earlier in the year—was assisted by dozens of volunteers from the site’s ProPublica Reporting Network.[12] The professional journalists obtained a random sample of the approved projects and asked the volunteers to help assess what had happened.

If you live in a community with particularly smart media organizations, you may be able to join them in a more formal way. American Public Media’s Public Insight Network[13], best known for its work in Minnesota and the upper Midwest, has signed up some 70,000 people who’ve agreed to be sounding boards and sources for the journalism created by professionals (and ultimately, one hopes, the citizens themselves).

The New Media Watchdogs

In Chapter 1 we noted the sad state of media criticism in traditional circles and the heartening rise of online media criticism. We should do more to make it an integral part of mediactivism.

Some of the best and most ardent online criticism is coming from political partisans. Sites such as Media Matters for America are earning big audiences with its dedication, as the site proclaims, “to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media.”[14] The site’s stated bias helps us understand its reports, which strike me as some of the most thorough of their kind. While Media Matters is prone to hyperbole in interpreting the facts, as far as I can tell it rigorously checks those facts.

People and organizations with grievances about the way they’ve been covered have better options than ever before. It’s increasingly common for companies and public figures to tell their side of stories on their own sites. Intriguingly, the Obama White House embarked on a campaign of its own media criticism early on, specifically taking on Fox News as a propaganda machine, not a “real” journalism organization. Whether a president should be arguing with individual news operations is a separate issue, but I welcomed the administration’s effort to explain to Americans what people paying attention had already learned.

Bigger media organizations have legions of critics. (You can even find a long Wikipedia article devoted solely to criticism of the New York Times.[15]) Yet even in smaller cities and towns, you’re likely to find someone (ideally, several people) blogging about local media. Remember the credibility scale, of course, when you read the critiques. But do read them, and decide as the facts shake out which ones are worth continuing to read.

Some might argue we have too much media criticism in a world where bloggers are constantly on the attack against what they perceive, often accurately, as inadequate journalism. But one of the healthier aspects of the rise of bloggers as media watchdogs has been the way journalists have had to start developing thicker skins—not ignoring their critics but also not reacting with the pure defensiveness of the past. Professionals are still sensitive about all this. Happily, at least a few have started listening, and are talking back on their own blogs, Twitter streams and elsewhere.

What drives traditional journalists especially crazy is being attacked unfairly. (Pot, meet kettle…) Comment threads under big media articles, which are so often unmoderated wastelands of  evil spewings from apparent sociopaths, become Exhibit A for journalists who don’t want to participate in conversations with readers. So the bias, even today, is to stay away from genuine contact with audiences. While media people are joining some conversations, they’re still avoiding genuine discussion of their own failings.

We need even more media criticism, at every level. This especially includes the new media critics, who make their own share of mistakes and are as likely to misinterpret reality as any editorial writer. You can usually find the best responses of blog posts, videos and other such commentary right underneath the original critiques.

Bloggers often have skins as thin as any traditional journalist’s, and some have a tendency to respond to even mild critiques with the kind of fury that only makes themselves look worse. But bloggers also have an instant feedback mechanism that traditional media people rarely use: the comments. You almost never find a mass-medai journalist participating in the comments on his or her organization’s website. Bloggers do tend to participate on their own sites, and on Twitter and other forums.

A project I’ve been working on, called MediaCritic, aims to aggregate various kinds of media criticism in a way that we hope will help you find the best of this genre, from media of all kinds about media of all kinds. As of this writing we’re about to launch an “alpha”—or very early—version of the website, which will use RSS and Twitter searches and feeds, augmented by human curation, to look at what some of America’s best critics are saying about the media they’re using. We’re also working on local versions of the project, the first of which is launching in the Phoenix area.

Escape the Echo Chamber

One of the great worries about the Internet is the echo chamber effect: the notion that democratized media have given us a way to pay attention only to the people we know we’ll agree with, paying no attention to contrary views or, often, reality.

This is no idle worry. But the same digital media that make it possible to retreat into our own beliefs gives us easier ways to emerge, and engage.

A key principle in the first chapter was the idea of going outside your comfort zone. As I  said then, this has several, related facets:

  1. Learn from people who live in places and cultures entirely different from your own.
  2. Listen to the arguments of people you know you’ll disagree with.
  3. Challenge your own assumptions.

You need to be somewhat systematic about the first and second of those points, but also opportunistic. While I make it a point to read political blogs written by people who make my blood boil, and read journalism from other parts of the world, I also make the best possible use of that elemental unit of the Web: the hyperlink.

Even the most partisan bloggers typically point to the work they are pounding into the sand. If a left-wing blogger writes, “So and so, the blithering idiot, is claiming such and such,” he links to the such and such he’s challenging—and you can click that link to see what so and so actually said. Contrast this with what happens when you watch, say, Fox News on televison. The TV set, at least today’s version, doesn’t come with links; and clearly the Fox journalists don’t want you consider world views other than their own.

The link culture of the Web is part of the antidote to the echo chamber. But you have to click. Do it, often.

If you do, there’s a good chance you’ll discover, from time to time, that you either didn’t have a sufficiently deep understanding of something—or that what you thought was simply wrong. There’s nothing bad about changing your mind; only shallow people never change their minds.

I engage in a semi-annual exercise that started more than a decade ago, when I was writing for the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley’s daily newspaper. I kept a list in the back of a desk drawer, entitled, “Things I Believe”—a 10-point list of topics about which I’d come to previous conclusions. They weren’t moral or ethical in nature. Rather, they were issue-oriented, and about my job as a business and technology columnist. Every six months or so, I’d go down the list and systematically attack every proposition, looking for flaws in what I’d previously taken for granted.

For example, one longstanding item on my list was this: “Microsoft is an abusive monopoly that threatens innovation, and government antitrust scrutiny is essential.” From 1994 until I left the Mercury News in 2005, I continued to believe this was true, though a shade less so by the end of that period than at the beginning and during the software company’s most brutal, predatory era. Conditions have changed. Given the rise of Google and other Web-based enterprises, not to mention the huge telecommunications companies, I’ve definitely modified my views; Microsoft is still powerful and sometimes abusive, but it’s not nearly the threat it used to be. (No, I don’t make my list public, though I talk about many of its points in my blog from time to time, which is almost the same thing.)

Consider creating just such a list of “givens” that you will challenge on a regular basis. This is especially vital when it comes to political beliefs. My basic political grounding combines elements of liberal, conservative and libertarian doctrine, and I vote according to a collection of issues, not remotely by party. But I’m constantly reassessing.

The late Carl Sagan, in a wonderful essay called “The fine Art of Baloney Detection,” put it this way:

Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.[16]

[1] RSS has been around for more than a decade, and is a global standard. It’s is a file format that almost every provider of news and information uses to help you get what they do in a more compact and flexible way.  Every modern Web browser features semi-prominent buttons, typically in the Web address (URL) field that let you create bookmarked pages of material from that page — the RSS “feed” of the material, usually in the form of headlines and summaries. All modern content-creation systems, including blogs, automatically create RSS for each new entry.

[2] The Journal’s editorial page is famous for its indifference to facts that contradict its world view and, sadly, too often resorts to abusing truth in its strident advocacy.[2]  See, for example, http://www.slate.com/id/2092439/

[3] http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/rheingold/detail?blogid=108&entry_id=42805

[4] http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/65aug/6508manning.htm

[5] http://www.badscience.net/

[6] http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2009/0506/1224245992919.html?via=mr

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars, last accessed December 4, 2009.

[8] http://www.slate.com/id/2195078/

[9] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/opinion/22pubed.html

[10] http://talkingpointsmemo.com

[11] http://projects.propublica.org/spotcheck/

[12] http://www.propublica.org/special/reportingnetwork-signup

[13] http://americanpublicmedia.publicradio.org/publicinsightjournalism/

[14] http://mediamatters.org/p/about_us/

[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_The_New_York_Times