How Can We Assess the Media Landscape?
In the Twenty First Century, the news media landscape has become overwhelming. There is 24 hour continuous coverage that often features obsessive real-time analysis of minute details and also immediate spin and posturing from people who would like to capitalize politically on every event. Things have changed greatly since the last years of the Twentieth Century when there were relatively few media organizations that served as gatekeepers for the dissemination of news. Our so-called information age has made it far easier and cheaper for anyone to spread their messages, reports, and ideas to millions of people in mere minutes. Some legacy media organizations have declined in audience and importance, but there are others that still enjoy enormous influence.
We should keep in mind that the word “media” is a plural noun. There are multiple media organizations that operate largely independently of each other and are competing with each other to provide detailed and accurate reporting. To some extent, this competition creates a dynamic that puts pressure on them to be honest and objective, although this dynamic generally only applied to the information that they present as news and not as opinion. This pressure does exist, although there are other factors that can compromise the objectivity of news reporting. Certainly, the quest for ratings and money often get in the way of their objectivity, but those who criticize “the media” the most are quite often the ones who find the objective evidence-based reporting to be inconvenient to their political ideology. We sometimes hear people criticize “the media”, but since it is not a monolith, this sort of broad-based criticism is fallacious and inaccurate. It is ironic that this criticism often occurs through some major media organization’s broadcast, and thus what they are saying would have to be a part of the media. What they really mean, therefore, is that they want their audience to only trust media organizations whose reporting is highly slanted toward their preferred political ideology.
It is unfortunate that some highly influential media organizations seem to have as their main purpose the relentless service of some political ideology or party. We need to be able to discern which organizations are operating with journalistic integrity, which dictates that they ought not spin nor distort the facts and that their reports should not be slanted one way or another. Instead, they should be as even-handed as possible. We need to be able to assess the newsgathering processes and methods of organizations and journalists. If we can get the impression that they are genuinely following trails of evidence and digging and investigating to uncover details and doing detective work to connect the dots, then the product of their work should be more credible to us. When there are multiple corroborating sources that are known to independently verify information, this gives pretty solid credibility. There isn’t a single one that by itself is assured to be an authoritative source.
Although we need media organizations to be as objective and unbiased as possible, there is also a purpose that is served by those that are coming from a certain ideological perspective. If there are diverse viewpoints in the news across the political spectrum, this can allow us to get out of our ideological bubble and begin to imagine how people from other walks of life see things. There is a limit to how much of this that we should tolerate, however. If a media organization reports blatantly false information in a way that incites violence, then this is a threat to free and fair society. This can be difficult to assess, however, because people can be fed a huge amount of false information that does not include anything that, by itself, incites anyone to violence against anyone. But if a media organization presents a completely false and highly sensationalized alternate reality for its audience in a way that unfairly demonizes certain people, then this can spur some people to violent acts. Therefore, we should realize that organizations that engage in this vile weaponization of news are a threat to peace in our global society.
It is really easy to make things up, and we have seen that it is even not that difficult for people to construct elaborate alternate universes that are largely self-consistent and are, in some ways, anchored into things that we can personally verify. These are overarching conspiracy theories. A conspiracy is where multiple people plot in secret to gain an advantage over a third party without their knowledge. By that broad definition, there undoubtedly are lots of conspiracies going on in the world. We know that there are people in power who engage in conspiracies and we should be concerned about that. But there are lots of conspiracy theories that are outlandish and are obviously not true by objectively verifiable information.
Despite their internal coherence and their relation to things we can personally verify, the most outlandish conspiracy theories are built on extreme levels of absurdity, paranoia, and physical impossibilities. They defy scientific data, they assume that all experts in most fields are systematically lying, and they depend on logical fallacies and very inconsistent usage of verification principles. Their lines of reasoning are always ad-hoc to justify their narrative, which is predominantly to show that certain people and certain power factions are evil and are in the process of destroying the world.
This is why fact-checking is a very important part of news reporting. Fact-checking organizations and websites are out there, but it is important to be careful because the words “fact” and “truth” are overused so much. At the most basic level, fact checking offers more claims, accounts, and narratives in an effort to support factual claims and to debunk false claims that were made by public figures and by other media organizations. It is up to us to discern legitimate fact checking from those who are pushing an agenda and trying to deceive us by creating a superficial illusion of fact checking, when they are actually only working to propagate more disinformation.
False claims can be presented in a way that makes them seem more plausible, and even in some cases some people would find them to be undeniably factual. We have seen that it is easy to get some people to believe in a claim by simply creating other false claims that refer to the first false claim or perhaps by giving a narrative for how the false information was “discovered” or by giving other false information that is coherent with it and thus creating a false model of reality that seems internally consistent. For example, false narratives can be constructed around certain public figures and politicians to make it appear that they committed heinous crimes or stole public money. Certainly, some public figures in the past have been known to commit egregious crimes, but we need to keep in mind how easy it is to make up these stories and we should be careful not to believe such merely on the basis of baseless allegations. The people who spin these stories have clever ways of making their creations seem more plausible. The presented narrative might include supporting details including people who say certain things and who, according to the reports, did the responsible and painstaking discovery work and are now blowing the whistle. We have seen that elaborate narratives of this sort can be constructed out of whole cloth so as to give the illusion of genuine journalism.
We know that there are those who are trying to deceive us. We know that there are people who propagate false information without knowing it. There are sometimes false narratives and false motives that are concocted to deceive us. We know that there is enormous power and wealth on the line if a faction can succeed in convincing enough citizens that some public figures are rotten and also by getting enough of them to believe in the pure virtues of certain other people. The public figures who are presented as having pure virtues might well have committed far more crimes than anyone else. In such cases, it would seem that the false reports that smear that person’s opponent were likely contrived in an effort to divert attention away from those crimes, which actually happened, and to get people to focus on imaginary crimes that were supposedly committed by a rival of the real criminal.
We have seen that those with enough skill in creating false narratives and alternate realities can use these tactics to essentially brainwash a sufficiently large segment of the population so as to put in power their preferred leaders. It might be very difficult this day and age, but for the preservation of a free and fair society, we need to be able to see through this wholesale propaganda. As we scrutinize certain narratives that are being peddled by certain sources and certain factions, we should be very careful not to believe in alternative narratives that are lacking in verifiable facts and also lacking in sober, evidence-based analysis.
How do we debunk these false narratives and mendaciously constructed and concocted alternate realities? We need to rely on intuitive consilience with our own experience, which means that new claims, accounts, and narratives need to fit into a puzzle within our minds. Fortunately, we should often be able to do some of our own fact checking in order to assess the credibility of those who claim to be fact checking. Also, if we get the impression that the fact-checkers are genuinely reviewing source documents and records and trying to authenticate them and trying to ascertain the provenance of some claims with due diligence, then this gives credence to the fact-checking efforts. When we are able to personally verify certain things and we know that certain things fall into place in some cases and in other cases just don’t make sense and don’t add up, this allows us to assess to what extent these organizations are indeed checking facts. If we use these methods, false narratives can be debunked, and we can help other people who might fall prey to them.
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