Make a resolution to improve your media literacy

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times @mikemcgannpa

New year, same old….well, a lot of stuff.

We’ve been getting our butts kicked by a virus for going on two years, half the country thinks the other half are corrupt liars and we’re wandering our way toward a time when we won’t even agree whether the sky is blue and if grass is green.

Granted, a lot of stuff is not quickly or easily fixable. But if 2022 can bring us one thing, it should be this: learning how to use the Internet and media to sort fact from fiction.

Okay, this is where some of you will shake your head and decry “mainstream media.” And some of that is deserved. But understanding your media and how it works is the beginning of being able to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to news and information.

As someone who has worked at all levels of media in senior editorial positions from tiny “mom and pop” outfits (like this one) to what was the at the time the world’s largest magazine publishing company, I have a lot of insights about media and how to decode it.

So, what can you trust?

It’s complicated at times, but not as hard as you’d think.

Like it not, big media is right most of the time. If they get it wrong, they get sued, face attacks from competitors and those they cover and they lose audience and thus ad revenue. They have a financial incentive to get it right as much as humanly possible. Also, despite claims about the “liberal” media, virtually all media is owned by large corporations with rather conservative leadership. So, while writers and editors may have a bit of a liberal bias (which doesn’t play out the way you think), ownership and publishers generally do not.

Okay, the “liberal” bent of the media: it’s true, but doesn’t typically play out as cheerleading for liberal causes. In fact, quite the opposite. In order to appear “fair” many — and earlier in my career I was probably guilty of this, too — are harder on Democrats and give the benefit of the doubt to Republicans because they want to be seen as fair and unbiased. The GOP is aware of this and uses it to their advantage.

This is where we get a lot of today’s “both sides” framing of things like the fake claim about the election being stolen, despite clear evidence that not only wasn’t it stolen, but that most of the elected officials making claims that it was illegitimate, know it was not and are openly lying about it.

Another criticism — and a fair one — is that many stories are framed from an elitist, completely out of touch point of view. Too many of the DC and New York media types come from a handful of journalism schools such as Columbia or Missouri (or adapt their mindsets to fit in with those who did attend those schools), leaving much of the big media with ivory tower perspective problems. As secondary and broadcast media often take their cues from The New York Times and The Washington Post, we get a trickle-down effect in terms of coverage and “takes” on the news.

So what to trust? Not to sound self-serving, but local media is probably the most likely to be accurate and reasonably fair. We have to see you at the local supermarket, school events and so on — we know our advertisers (and many of our readers) personally. That creates a level of accountability you don’t see in many forms of media. One caveat: a lot of local legacy newspapers have been scooped up by hedge funds. While that doesn’t change the fact that they remain largely reliable, it does cause two issues: one, less news is covered due to massive cuts of staff and resources. Second, with so few people, it means people double, triple and more up on their responsibilities, so mistakes are more likely. In fairness, they will rush to make corrections and get it right.

But there is another concern: some “local” media isn’t local at all. Some are troll sites, with bits of pirated local news content taken from this site and similar sites, mixed with propaganda. Some are run by a network of right-wing organizations, some by foreign actors and even governments. They exist largely to make folks question whether regular media is accurate or fair.

How to tell them apart: do they have local ads? Not Google ads (you can see a little “X” in the upper right corner), but real local ads. If they don’t have ads — and the accountability that comes with it — the site might be fake.

Also: Facebook and Twitter are not news sites. They are more akin to graffiti on a bathroom wall and should be treated as such. They may have real news, but you need to check the sourcing and, ideally, find multiple sources to confirm the information. And to be honest: anything on NextDoor is a dumpster fire — it’s a waste of your time and otherwise perfectly good electrons.

The one thing I’ve learned doing this since 1983, is that the real picture is like a tapestry. What is seen as true and real depends upon two things: how many threads you have to make up the picture (again, more sources, higher news resolution) and perspective. From up close, the picture may tell you one thing, but pulled back, you may seen an entirely different truth.

An educated consumer of news is the best informed one.

End of lecture.

May I wish all of you a happy — and much healthier — 2022.

We will return to our normal, snarky coverage of local and state politics in this space in two weeks.

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