Make it a Habit: How To Consume Media Critically and Carefully

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As we get closer to the 2020 election and potential presidential candidates are out campaigning, we are sure to start hearing conflicting stories, dissenting opinions, and mudslinging (something that has happened for hundreds of years in politics).

I am someone who works in media (broadcast, and now formerly print) and consumes media, I can confidently say that how we consume media and where we get it is important to how we form opinions and arguments (which are not the same thing BTW).

Something I hear all the time in class, at work, and in social settings is that the media is evil and has an agenda. While yes there is probably an agenda and it might not always benefit the public, not all media is evil (although some are, like most of the political “news” you get from facebook or sources known for lying, bullying, and misleading).

In fact, most news media is not evil. The media is operating as it should now more than it has in a long time. Yes there is some work to be done, but right now a lot of small and non profit media is doing its job, dissenting and informing .

The media’s job is to inform and sometimes dissent. If our media reported the same stories at every outlet, we would have no choice but to believe it. Dissent is important because it allows us to critically assess the information we are given to form our own arguments on the issues. Dissenting opinions are important to democracy. Without dissent, there is no democracy.

I consider myself a careful consumer of media. Aside from local news, I trust nothing the first time I hear it, especially damning stories. It has become a habit to question and look into the things that matter to me, matter to our country, or affect a large population of people. It’s one of my best habits and I think everyone should adopt it.

To critically and carefully consume media, these are the things I ask myself before forming an opinion and argument on any issue.

Who is paying for this message?

Look at who advertises with the broadcaster, newspaper, or any other source. Which companies are in the commercials, what ads are in the margins, who funds the news source? What are those companies’ or organizations’ values? What events and organizations does the company support? Who benefits directly or indirectly from the reported information?

It’s important to know who is funding your news. Even at a local level, news sources are biased towards their advertisers and politicians. Most likely your news source is a company or corporation. This makes politicians and financially supportive agencies, companies, and organizations, business partners. Your news source most likely shares the same values as the external organizations it does business with.

The smaller the news source, the less likely it is for it to be intrinsically tied to its financial stakeholders over the public, but the advertisers, financial supporters, and owners are still very important.

The owners of your news media also plays a huge impact in how news is delivered, what news is delivered, and who is endorsed. I am lucky to work for a privately owned NBC affiliate, and we don’t have to worry about top down messages dictating coverage and endorsements. This gives me peace of mind, but very few media companies, especially local media companies are still privately owned. Jefferson Public Radio did an interesting story on local media ownership in Southern Oregon and Northern California, Focusing on Medford, Oregon specifically.

Who or what is this message for?

Is the message or media obviously targeted towards one audience or is the language and values presented universally accepted (not just the things you think should be universally accepted)?

You can tell a lot about a news source based on the stories they tell and how they tell those stories. Reporters often aren’t making the final decisions on their scripts and anchors are not (always) reporters. There is almost always an editor (or a few) who looks over the content, provides edits or edit suggestions, and approves content.

I was an editor for a print news source for a few years and my job was to make sure the content met our quality standards and aligned with our organization’s values. I also work in broadcast, and our company has multiple eyes looking at scripts to check for these things.

Most news sources follow a set of values whether they are established in writing or implied, when writing, editing, and approving content.

Some big news sources have established guidelines for how they can report issues and the words they can’t use, should use, and how the story should be “spun.” It’s not ethical reporting but it happens.

These practices are to appease stakeholders and specific audiences, not for public good (even if the source thinks it is). keeping an eye out for these tiny elements can give you an idea of who the source is targeting their content to. I believe news should serve an entire population, not a specific target audience. If your news source or a piece of news you see has a target audience, I would consider finding a new news outlet or supplement your existing one.

Is anyone hurt by the message?

Does the media use explicitly or implicitly hurtful words, phrases, or opinions? Even if you don’t like the individual or group your media is talking about, seriously question the credibility of the media if it’s insulting or misrepresenting another person or group and not just questioning them or presenting dissenting opinions.

These can be obvious and subtle. Name calling is obvious bias. Using biased reporting to represent a person or group of people negatively for the sake of doing so is not always obvious. It’s like when a black 17 year old is killed by law enforcement and the news source uses a negative appearing photo that is years old and calls the kid a thug or a man vs when a white 19 year old kills children at a school and the photo they use is a professional photo or an otherwise nice photo and refer to him as “troubled youth.” This kind of bias hurts not only a handful of people but large groups of people and can cause dangerous tension.

Make sure your news source isn’t putting people in harm.

What is this company’s track record?

Is the media company known for spreading misinformation, withholding important information, misrepresenting facts, or lying? It doesn’t matter if you are loyal to a company at this point, if they are known for misinformation or lying, they are not a credible source of information. End of story.

What are the other sides of the story?

If you are presented with a story that is political, controversial, or one sided, you should find the other sides to the story. There are never just two sides to anything. If your news media is presenting that there are only one or two sides, they are informing you in bad faith.

With that said, often there are two prominent sides and reporting that is okay. But if your media is only reporting one side, they are not credible.

I will argue though, that all sides of an argument are not equal and there are sometimes good and bad sides. Balanced media should not mean reporting all sides of an argument or story as equally good or bad. Balanced media is presenting the facts as they are, not altering or leaving some out to appear balanced.

What are other sources saying?

What do other sources say about the issue? Where do they agree and disagree? Do the facts change? Facts can be presented differently, but what matters is the facts themselves.

What kind of language are they using? Is it inherently biased? Checking the language of your media can be tedious and hard, but practicing makes it easier over time to hear language that is biased. Biased language is using words that carry specific connotations to say more about a story than what is actually said. If you can hear a story from one source and feel differently about the story hearing it from another source, look at the language the sources are using.

Sometimes media does this intentionally and it’s strategic to spin a story to appease stakeholders or push an agenda. Other times it’s just the internal bias of the writers and editors coming through. Regardless, it’s important we notice bias in language and reporting.

What do you think?

Stop regurgitating what other people think. It’s okay to say you don’t have an educated formed opinion on a topic, in fact that’s better than regurgitating someone else’s opinion. Often we say what we have heard without thinking about it in regard to what we believe because we feel we need to have an opinion on something. Sometimes we have the same opinions as our friends and families, which isn’t always a good thing.

We need to have dissenting opinions as the other people in our lives. Otherwise, how do we form educated opinions if we only ever hear the same echo chamber of opinions and thoughts. Branch out, become friends with people who don’t believe the same things as you (barring huge differences in values). Talk to your family members with different political arguments. It’s entirely possible, and doing so can help you develop better informed arguments that you can defend. If you never have to defend your opinions, you might never consider where they came from or why you believe them.

If you can’t defend your argument, it’s only an opinion and an uneducated one at that. The difference between an opinion and an argument is clear defense.

Also, if you are always saying you don’t have an educated formed opinion on something, maybe it’s time you do. Being lazy or choosing ignorance instead of informing yourself is irresponsible. Being intentionally ignorant is malicious.

Are you even paying attention?

A lot of people say they choose to not be political or pay attention to the news because it’s upsetting, frustrating or they are uninterested. This is one of the worst things you can do to yourself, fellow humans, and democracy. Being uninformed and apolitical is just as bad as being uninformed and political.

Being apolitical is a privilege that only a few can afford, often because their interests have always been represented by our government and media and aren’t threatened. Odds are, you can’t afford to be apolitical and being uninformed and uninterested is actively hurting our democracy and maybe even yourself. Most likely, if you aren’t wealthy, straight, or a white man, your existence is political and you need to pay attention.

Additionally, it’s okay to be uninformed, but only if you have the intent to become informed. Ignorance because you haven’t been exposed to a problem is one thing, ignorance because you don’t care about the problem or are uninterested is a terrible irresponsibility on your part. You should know what issues can or will effect you. You should know what the major problems in your area and country are. It’s part of being a responsible citizen.

In the end,

The worst things you can do for yourself and democracy is be apolitical, never question the information your chosen authority gives you, and only get your news from one or two sources.

Be a responsible citizen, defend your arguments, know what you value, and know your news sources. And please, don’t get all your news from facebook, or really believe anything you read or see on facebook for that matter.

And this may be cynical, but unless supported by indisputable facts supported by multiple sources, never trust a politician, the president, any other political or government leader, or your media. It’s one thing to question authority you don’t agree with, that accomplishes nothing. You need to question the authority you do agree with in order to understand yourself, you values, and how you are being represented in the media and politics.

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