I recently read an article on Resilience–an aggregator website–that struck a chord.
The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of what I’ve referred to previously as the “journalism of verification.” These are the paragraphs that really resonated with me:
Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important then presidential campaigns.
Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.
Recently, former programmers at Facebook accused the site of manipulating the identity of “trending” stories. I have no idea whether this is true (actually, I sort of doubt it, for a number of reasons not relevant to this post), but in a culture permeated by suspicion, I’m sure the accusation will get traction–and add to our already high levels of paranoia.
One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.
We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information must compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias.
The result, of course, is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.
Just one recent example, among too many to count: Sean Hannity of Fox “News” recently cited an “authoritative report” to the effect that the Kremlin had hacked Hillary Clinton’s emails, and was debating whether to release them. And where did this “authoritative report” originate? On WhatDoesItMean.com.
Currently, WhatDoesItMean.com boasts front page headlines such as “Northern England Stunned After British Fighter Jets Battle UFO,” “Russia Warned Of ‘Wrath Of God’ Event As West Prepares To Honor New Planet With Satanic Ritual,” “Music Icon Prince Dies After Obama Regime Fails To Heed Russian Warning,” and “Mysterious Planet Ejected From Black Hole At Center Of Galaxy Warned Could Soon Impact Earth.”
Look, I don’t think anyone wants to return to the era of the “gate-keeper,” where reporters and editors got to decide what news was–what merited coverage and what could safely be ignored. But we desperately need to identify methods that will allow consumers of media to recognize what’s wheat and what’s chaff– to distinguish spin, propaganda and opinion from factual information.
The emergence of Donald Trump as the nominee of a once-respectable political party should be all the evidence we need that the extent of media coverage and the value, accuracy and relevance of that coverage are very different things.
What we lost when we lost the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government.