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Don’t outsource your opinion

The problem with outsourcing your opinion to ‘trusted news organisations’ is that no journalist or publication is right 100% of the time.

Media literacy is more important than ever – especially when once trusted news outlets have long since worn out their ‘benefit-of-the-doubt’ card.

Last week, comedian Jordan Peele made a video for BuzzFeed in which he combined ‘scary video technology (™)’  with his trademark Obama impression to scare people into only reading news from ‘reputable news outlets’.

The jig goes: Technology can be used to make it seem as though anyone could be seen to say any crazy old thing, and the internet believes them. For this reason, we should rely only on trustworthy news sources.

There was no talk of, ‘gee, wonder what happens if intelligence agencies get their hands on this tech?’. (Spoilers: they already have it). The video seems to be strictly reserved for those of us still concerned about the alleged influence consumer tech and Russian bots are having on our democracies.

I don’t think Peele was entirely wrong in emphasizing the importance of vigilance. But instead of asking you to trust the Washington Post or the New York Times or any other masthead dubbed a ‘reputable news source’, the only person whose judgement you should trust is your own.

Don’t outsource your opinion. Don’t trust what you’re reading, no matter who is writing it. Read everything. Question everything. Then form your own opinion. Don’t even trust what you’re reading right now. Don’t trust me. Don’t trust any outlet. Or newspaper. Or website or blog. Read everything you can get your hands on, to the extent that you properly understand the context and history surrounding any given issue and then make your own informed decision.

The problem with outsourcing your opinion to ‘trusted news organisations’ is that no journalist or publication is right 100% of the time.

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald has been keeping a pretty galling list of retractions from publications which include (but are not limited to) the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, Fortune, CNN and MSNBC, all of whom have published one or more retractions over this Russiagate hysteria.

Turns out Russia did not access America’s electricity grid, or the DNC email database. WikiLeaks does not have a relationship with the Kremlin, Trump does not share a secret server with a Russian bank. And there is still no evidence Putin ordered Mike Podesta’s inbox to be hacked. In the case of CNN, three journalists resigned over a story falsely linking Trump ally and one-time press secretary, Anthony Scaramucci to a Russian investment fund under Congressional investigation.

That’s not to say these outlets don’t also publish important and ground-breaking journalism. And of course, future evidence may come to light. But these retractions demonstrate the eagerness with which many ‘reputable media outlets’ approach anything involving Russia. Sadly, the Kremlin connection is not the only topic media retractions are limited to.

In June 2017, the New York Times published an editorial which wrongly implied that the assassination attempt of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was incited by a political action committee pamphlet.

Last year the Courier Journal issued a retraction for a series of stories between 1887-1966 where the paper  incorrectly referred to hot-dogs as sandwiches:

And then, of course, there was the old WMD claims (remember those?), which were used by these ‘trusted news outlets’ as justification for resurrecting the Gulf War.

All journalists make mistakes. Some of them bigger than others. It may be disheartening to read but no publication is right 100% of the time. Therefore the only judgement you should trust is your own.

All media outlets have an agenda. Often this can be as ‘innocent’ as deciding who your audience is and targeting the content towards them (which can too often take priority over pursuing the truth as primary). In other cases, it’s a case of framing: setting narrow parameters for what is considered publicly acceptable discourse.

For example, see this piece from the New York Times whose headline reads: ‘Dozens of Palestinians have died in protests as the US prepares to open its Jerusalem Embassy’. Notice the use of passive tense. The headline should read: ‘Dozens of Palestinians killed by Israeli snipers during peaceful protest’. The way in which issues are framed in the press will dictate the way it is read.

Or see this headline from CNN: ‘Dozens die in Gaza as US embassy opens in Israel’. From this headline, you would wrongly get the impression the two events were not connected.

In other situations, framing is a matter of rolling deadlines and declining resources. Media outlets increasingly rely on wire copy when reporting on foreign affairs, or are ‘forced’ to take the government at their word. (See the countless editorials on the Skripal poisonings in which anyone who questions the ‘Russia did it narrative’ is maligned as a conspiracy theorist despite the growing list of questions around the incident, including the fact we’ve yet to hear a word from the victims). In some cases, the bias is purely ideological: for example, when the Times described a group of academics who launched a research group on Syria as ‘Assad apologists’ that had infiltrated British universities.

The desire to one day score a front-page interview with the Prime Minister, for example, is often a useful incentive for publishing sympathetic editorial.  Other times it’s simply a matter of chasing clicks, following your audience in whichever political direction they diverge into, so long as it keeps traffic rolling in.

There are any number of reasons why no single trusted news source will provide you with everything you need to be well-informed.

None of these problems can be solved by Facebook fact-checking, or simply reading ‘the right’ news outlets. None of us can or should be trusted 100% of the time. Sacred cows are a luxury of a bygone era. The only way to be truly informed is to read, watch and listen to as much content as you can get your hands on, from all sides of the political spectrum, and make up your own mind. Developing critical thinking skills is essential for making sense of the world around us, particularly in these troubled times.

Media literacy is more important for readers than outsourcing their opinion to trusted news outlets who have long since worn out their benefit of the doubt card.

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