In a world immersed in digital technology, it is incredibly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction, and reading the news is no longer a case of finding a story, reading it and relying on journalists to keep you informed. So we want to help you cultivate some news-reading habits that will allow you to get an objective take on the news of the day.
I know that the very idea of a “news” story telling you how to read the news seems counter-intuitive and somewhat condescending on my behalf. But this journalist has very strong convictions about the state of today’s media, its shortcomings and the effects that it has on the people of the world. To put it simply, the fact that Donald Trump occupies the Oval Office and that, after almost four years of disastrous policies, children in cages, flirtation with World War 3 and an already out-of-hand global pandemic plaguing the United States, people still think that this man is equipped to hold the most important political position on earth.
And the buck doesn’t stop with Trump, the same can be said for the English electing Boris Johnson, Brazilians electing Jair Bolsonaro and India voting for Narendra Modi. Not to mention, in my home country, South Africa, the African National Congress has been presiding over and ever-deeply entrenching the most unequal country on earth, yet the very disenfranchised people of this country continue to elect corrupt, incompetent, self-serving men into office and have done so for my entire life.
And, in every instance mentioned above, there is one common entity that has driven arguably straight-up evil men into power: the media. Just as Joseph Goebbels’ incredibly effective office of “Public Enlightenment and Propaganda” created a platform for Nazi’s to carry out despicable, inhumane acts and glorified Adolf Hitler; just like propaganda based on Marxist-Leninist ideology was used to promote the Communist Party line in the Soviet Union, the modern day media has created an atmosphere of partisanship, tribalism, denialism and has pulled the wool over the eyes of everyone from any part of the world that you can imagine.
“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.”Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
So, to anyone that might be treating their favourite newspapers, television channels, radio hosts, YouTube commentators, blogs (including this one) or Facebook pages like they are reporting the truth, the chances are, they aren’t. A 2017 article based on a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre found that 64% of adults in the US were confused by current affairs due to the propagation of “fake news” in the media. Meanwhile, a Cornell University study found that 62% turn to social media for their news (18% doing so regularly). And, of course, the widespread adaptation of social media is what has ultimately led to the phenomenon of “post-truth” politics, where debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy. So it would come as no surprise that the National Academy of Sciences found that people tend to seek out news that aligns with their political views.
In short, we’re all caught up in a bubble that reinforces our worldviews and are no longer able to tell the difference between fact and fiction. However, there’s no need to tell our well-informed readers about how to distinguish between fact and fiction, because you’ve already read our story on Tackling Information Disorder in the Era of Fake News (right?). Rather, this is a story about how you should take on reading the news as a daily habit. So let’s take you through the simple steps that you need to take to shape a well-informed worldview and take on the daily news.
1. Acknowledge your bias
“He who knows only his side of the case, knows little of that.”John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Look, there’s nothing wrong with being biased. It’s a natural flaw that you will find in all humans. However, the big mistake that we make, in my experience, is to deny it. Even though I like to call myself unbiased and reasonable and objective, I’m fully aware that I fall on the left side of the spectrum. My views are nuanced, of course, but it is necessary for me to acknowledge them and to ask myself, “does what I’m reading sound reasonable? Is it grounded in facts?” and that’s even more difficult is to ask myself if the facts are merely confirmation bias. For example, if I’m arguing that social democracy is highly effective in Denmark, am I also mentioning Denmark’s remarkably high personal income tax rate? Am I mentioning Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s address at Harvard where he said, “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy” (Just so you know, there’s a lot more to that debate than I have time to present right now). When someone argues against socialism by citing the results of a socialist government in Venezuela, where people are eating rats, do they also mention that the US has not only inflicted crippling sanctions on the Venezuelan economy, which may play a role in it’s economic demise or that the US has a history of meddling with the government under Hugo Chavez, after he decided to nationalise its oil resources? (Again, there’s a lot more to be said here.)
Are the news providers I listen to every day providing context to stories or are they just presenting me with a small fact to supposedly add substance to their argument? Are they presenting arguments based on facts or are they presenting facts based on arguments?
It’s very easy to google something to suit a story and find a research conducted somewhere at some time that reinforces my point, but that doesn’t make it right. So, when you read/listen to/watch your daily news, ask yourself if the journalists presenting it to you have an ulterior motive or are seeking to enforce a particular worldview when they present you with facts. A single fact doesn’t necessarily make a statement correct. I frequently see political commentators like Ben Shapiro or Charlie Kirk cite insignificant facts to make their right-wing talking points sound more palatable. Beware of bad actors like this that like to practice sophistry, use big words to sound smarter than they actually are, but are really just full of shit. Ben loves to use the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings”, but then goes on to cite God’s will as the foundation for his belief that abortion should be illegal.
“We look for evidence that supports the belief systems we already have in place using perceptual myopia as a means of limiting our input,” says Professor Jason Ohler in the Consortium for Media Literacy. “The psychology community has given this phenomenon a name: confirmation bias. Without confirmation bias we have to continually test our beliefs and hope we can survive the emotional chaos that results as we reshuffle our worlds. The reality is that we will do just about anything to avoid the confusion and powerlessness that comes with chaos. Advertisers know this only too well. In their quest to get us to feel rather than think, they craft simple, powerful emotional messages that confirm biases that we already hold dear.”
2. Follow the money
By follow the money, I mean try and find out who actually owns the publication that you’re reading or who is sponsoring it. For example, The Naspers Group in South Africa (and I personally worked for one of their subsidiary publications) owns basically all of the media in the country and are owned by Koos Bekker, the fourth wealthiest person in South Africa. An article written in February this year describes how Bekker used “bullying tactics” to maintain Multichoice’s monopoly over South Africa’s pay-TV market. This is evidence of the intertwined relationship between mass media houses and government. Yunus Carrim, Former South African Minister for Communications, testified before the Zondo Commission into State Capture about exactly how deeply Bekker was involved within the government framework and how he was able to use his wealth and power to manipulate the system in his favour. Naspers’ domination of the media industry gives them the power to dictate the editorial direction of a host of publications, most of all the biggest online news website in the country, News24.com.
So while Bekker may not be directly handling the news stories published by any of the publications that fall underneath the Naspers banner, you can be certain that no editor that wants to keep his or her job will allow a story to be published that paints Bekker in a negative light. And, when you look at the biggest news networks around the world, be it CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the Times Media Group and so on, you should first pay attention to who owns them and what their track record with corruption is. And beyond that, you should pay attention to advertising. If you have a magazine (do magazines even exist anymore?) that has a full page ad for Dolce & Gabbana handbags, how likely do you think it is that they’ll be publishing stories about the Indonesian sweatshops that produce those handbags – note that this is a hypothetical example and I’m not saying that happens. Media publications have to maintain strong relationships with their advertisers and there is unquestionably a conflict of interest when it comes to reporting on stories. And, more so, many of the companies actually fall under a single holding company that would not approve of negative reporting on any of the other brands under that same holding company.
So, before you read a publication and take their word as gospel, try to research where their money is coming from and how they stay afloat. It’s a very difficult time for the media industry and everyone has a mortgage to pay. There are very few people out there that operate as journalists in the interest of finding the truth. Most of them just want to hold onto their jobs…
My rule of thumb is to read news presented by independent publications or outlets like Secular Talk, The Young Turks, The Majority Report, The Hill, the BBC and Al Jazeera (Although the last two are technically state-owned, but have a very good reputation for having editorial independence). It is the smaller news outlets (including your local community newspapers) who aren’t as driven by profit as the massive corporate outlets who you can trust far more to pursue truth – to do what journalists are actually supposed to do. In South Africa, if you’d like the best source for news, the independent investigative journalism outlet, AmaBhungane, is run as a non-profit organisation and can be trusted to provide you with fair, objective reporting.
3. Popular opinion isn’t always the right opinion
News is kind of like music. Just because it is popular doesn’t make it great. And newsrooms often publish stories just because they think it will resonate well with readers. We all know what clickbait is and it is often the stories that people don’t want to read that are actually the important ones. My social media feed is littered with stories from the aforementioned Ben Shapiro and other right-wing commentators not because I enjoy their content, but because I want to see what “the other side” is saying.
And, beyond this, when a media outlet panders towards an audience, it shows that their motives are disingenuous. So, don’t be afraid to be the only person in the room to have a particular opinion on the news of the day. And read the news that you don’t want to read just so that you can challenge your own biases, as well as to get a broader outlook on stories.
4. Credibility is everything
While studying journalism, the first thing my classmates and I were taught was that, without your credibility, you have nothing in this industry. Just one slip-up, one misreported fact, can cost you your entire career. When you get something wrong, your readers/viewers/listeners will not trust you to be a credible source of news. Today, however, that seems to be far from the truth. There seem to be far too many news outlets out there that have messed up and even, in some cases, failed to issue retractions, but continue to draw in viewers.
So it’s your job as a news consumer to read up on your favourite journalist or publication and find out what they’ve gotten wrong in the past, whether they’ve acknowledged and retracted their past mistakes and, most importantly, if they’ve changed their patterns and approach to reporting since those mistakes. There are plenty of examples of errors in reporting from every corner of the political spectrum and even with regards to apolitical reporting. You need to ask yourself if it’s just a simple mistake or something more sinister, such as a blatant lie or pure propaganda. For example, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks has been called out again and again for his denial of the Armenian genocide as a young reporter. Uygur has retracted his statements and explained why he got it wrong and how his view has shifted towards the truth. Some of his audience may overlook his past transgressions, while others might continue to use his network to get their daily news. Other journalists and outlets like Richard Spencer and The Daily Stormer found to hold and propagate Neo-nazi, antisemitic views neither apologize for nor denounce these allegations. As a newsreader, your role is to decide whether their retractions or apologies are enough for you to warrant continuing to get your news from a publication that’s lost its credibility, it’s your responsibility to find out if and/or what errors they have made in the past and which issues you decide their opinions are credible enough to take on as the truth.
5. Trust NOBODY
The final point may be somewhat extreme and completely counter-intuitive to the rest of this article, but it’s also a pretty fair position to take in today’s media environment. Degrees of trust exist on a spectrum, but one thing is for sure and it is that nobody can be fully trusted. You can never know anybody else’s motives or what they aren’t telling you. And in the age of the Internet, there is a massive cesspool of untrustworthy sources out there. The media industry is just like the meat industry, manufacturing industry or… any industry. It’s producing news on a mass scale and whether that news is of high or appropriate quality should always be put under scrutiny. If you aren’t experiencing something first hand, you cannot trust that something is the truth. However, we can’t all be in a million places at once and keep up with everything that is going on in our fast-paced world. So you don’t really have much choice but to put your trust in the hands of some journalists. Just always remember, we live in a “post-truth” age, where truth is a non-existent commodity.
With that said, you can do a lot to get yourself to a point where you’re as close to the truth as you could possibly hope for. Just learn to acknowledge your biases, aggregate numerous, credible, independent news sources and be very careful about what you take on as fact and decipher the inherent conjecture. Once you get this right, you’ll know how to read the news.