This stuff about fake news and bias in the media is real, and it’s important. EssaySnark wouldn’t be surprised if bschools started introducing classes into their core curricula to teach students critical thinking skills and help them evaluate sources of information. It’s really, really important to know what you’re reading and figure out for yourself where the truth lies.
The Washington Post — part of the establishment, a very traditional news operation, and one that’s frequently accused of being very left-leaning and liberal — posted this article about PolitFact going out into Republican communities and talking to people about the job that the Politfact researchers do . In case you’re unfamiliar with them, PolitiFact evaluates claims made by politicians and rates them for accuracy.
EssaySnark links to articles in Washington Post and NY Times fairly regularly here on the blahg, mostly because we do actually trust those sources for trying to be professional and reporting on the news accurately. We also have seen totally ridiculously and fully biased articles on their site on a very regular basis, and they are guilty of publishing things that are totally not news. These old-school publications are trying to stay relevant in the fast-moving culture we’re living in, and they don’t always get it right. We’ve seen them succumb to click-baiting and write overly dramatic headlines.
That’s our opinion, at least — that they’re a useful and trustworthy source, as long as you watch out and read carefully.
Others feel that all of the articles published by such outlets are trash, that they’re totally biased and unreliable.
(BTW, we’d like to also link to the Wall Street Journal on occasion, however almost all of their content is behind a paywall, compared to NYT and WaPo who both give a limited number of articles for free every month. Same thing with Financial Times; you have to register to read even a few free articles there, so we tend not to link to them even though we think they write good stuff. If you see us as all NYT/all WaPo and wonder why, it’s because we try to offer accessible info and not send readers who click into a dead end.)
One reaction to all of this controversy about the news is to opt out. Some people may decide that politics is too loud these days, that everyone is screeching, and it’s easier just to put your head in the sand and ignore it. However, the world of business is intertwined in politics. If you are interested in business, you need to know what’s going on in all of the world, not just your own little corner. It’s important to stay informed. If you don’t, you’re likely to become victim of someone’s agenda. You might become another cog in the wheel of the engine that’s clunking us towards destruction.
(OK, that was a little dramatic. 😀 )
At minimum, you need to understand the news, or at least to see what’s going on with it, in order to form your own opinions on where the financial markets are going. That’s CRITICAL to understand if you’re making business decisions. Do you invest in infrastructure? Do you go for equity or debt? Do you try to reduce inventories or stock up? All of these questions can be answered only if you have a strong feeling for what the overall markets will be doing, which is closely tied to global politics. If you personally care about social issues, then this stuff matters too. You need to know what’s going on.
The best way to sort through a news item and evaluate its veracity for yourself is:
1. Consider the source. Is it a publication that’s known to be biased? You know if it’s a National Enquirer article, that it’s unlikely to be true, especially when the article is flanked by others on alien abduction and Elvis sightings. What about others? Two that are obviously reporting only through the lens of their own political perspectives are Fox News and the Huffington Post. EssaySnark does not tend to read outlets like that because we get irritated at the hype on both sides. Every publication takes a stance; there’s no such thing as neutral anymore, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value to seeing what they have to say — provided you do so with the right amount of skepticism. CNN, Politico, the New Yorker — all liberal, but we believe they are trying to get things right. [EDIT: A BSer disagrees re: CNN! It’s not an outlet that we reference much so we’ll take that input as valid. Remembering their ridiculous TMZ-like coverage of the missing Malaysian Airlines airplane in 2015, and the Casey Anthony case, it’s certainly true that there’s an excess of hype there.] Others like The Economist and the Financial Times are trying to be more even-keel. One way to evaluate? See if you know who owns the property. In the West, all media is operated by a private corporation. The Washington Post, for example, is owned by Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, and who is known to be liberal. When he bought the paper, he insisted that he’s taking a hands-off approach, but still. Ownership is not irrelevant. It is even more pronounced at the Wall Street Journal, which was bought by Rupert Murdoch about 20 years ago and changed to a more conservative slant. The venerable US Weekly was recently sold by the guy who runs Rolling Stone to the guy who runs the National Enquirer, and we’ve seen people say that the coverage of the White House has already changed in response. In all cases, the owner has a viewpoint, and they intend to make it known in our culture; that’s why they bought the outlet or channel, to provide a means to do so. All media is trying to influence us.
2. Make sure you know the difference between an opinion piece, and reporting. A journalist who’s out covering a story is, by professional ethics, expected to be looking for the truth. Facts. Verifiable data. However, all of these outlets also publish commentary and opinion, and that’s where it’s quite easy as a reader to fall into a trap. A columnist at any of these publications is writing their own views on the subject, through their own filters. They may be analyzing a situation and attempting to sway their audience in a specific direction. All talking heads on TV are professing their opinion and this includes Rachel Maddow and almost everything on MSNBC, Sean Hannity and almost everything on Fox , and the liberal “news” comedy shows like Colbert and Sean Meyers. Should you still watch them? Sure, if you enjoy them as entertainment. Yes, ENTERTAINMENT. They may also be educational if you’re not up to speed with the news of the moment but they are going to give you information through a filter. They are INTERPRETING. They — like everyone — present their view through the lens of their beliefs. Just make sure you are watching for that. There are frequent misstatements and intentional half-truths on ALL of those shows.
3. Make sure it’s not intended as farce. It’s pretty funny in retrospect when someone believes that an article on The Onion is true. There are certain writers whose work appears in other mainstream sources who are always working the parody angle. When you see a comic on TV doing a made-up sketch, you know that it’s not real. Sometimes it’s hard to tell that a made-up article on the internet is intended to be funny, not true. Satire is a tricky one. Here’s a few stories from The Onion that people thought were real , with some tips on how to tell.
The second test is perhaps the most important, so let’s cover that one again.
Is it supposed to be news? Or is it commentary?
It’s sometimes hard to tell! However, there’s a difference between a news article which means an actual journalist reporting piece on an event that happened in the world, and a column or a post or basically, something that just anyone says on the internet. If you’re reading any blog (including this one!) or something on Medium, it’s NOT NEWS, at least, not according to the standards of journalism. If you’re reading the comments on Facebook or on some news item on a mainstream article — wait, why would you be reading the comments?? DON’T READ THE COMMENTS. Comments are cesspools, they will leech out any positivity you may possess. You know that the comments are just people spouting off. It becomes trickier when you’re reading something from a traditional newspaper. Just because it’s posted on one of these so-called trustworthy sites does not mean it’s news!!
Our hypothesis on why some people are quick to label established mainstream media outlets as “fake news” is due to this fundamental misunderstanding. If a columnist or an opinion writer posts on the New York Times or the Washington Post, they are not reporting the news. Those are opinion pieces. They are SUPPOSED TO BE biased; that’s the job description of a columnist. They are providing their perspective on a topic. All columnists are giving opinion. Same thing with the editorial pages of any major newspaper; those are the perspectives of the editorial board of the paper. THEY ARE BIASED. They are INTENTIONALLY so. That’s the role of those types of content. How do you tell what you’re reading? Usually it will say at the top of the article that the writer is a “columnist”; or, some news outlets now tag pieces as “opinion”.
Here’s how WaPo does it:
Only #4 and #5 are straight-up news, as you would expect news to be reported. The third one, “Opinion”, was a letter to the editor that WaPo published from Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) after he announced that he is retiring at the end of his term. The first two (#1 and #2 ) are sort of straddling both sides; they’re not straight news reporting, and they’re not opinion columns, but they’re trying to help you understand impact — and they are trying to do it objectively but they are not likely to succeed in all cases. Those ones are often very useful, since they’re written by journalists who cover that subject — say, tax reform, and what the proposed plan in Congress will do to the debt, or how it will impact middle class Americans — but they’re still not necessarily reporting facts, and this distinction is important.
Knowing what you are reading, and being able to evaluate the source of the information coming your way, so that you can form YOUR OWN OPINION, is critical for maintaining your sanity, and being able to navigate this crazy environment. Everyone wants something from you: They want you to adopt their ideas. Do you have the skills to evaluate what they are selling?
More to come on this important topic — See here!