In Light Of Fake News And Advocacy Journalism, We Must Be Savvy News Consumers

It’s essential for people to break out of their own echo chambers and to expose themselves to various viewpoints.
12/06/2016 10:59 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2016
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Who do we rely on to get our news? Unfortunately, most people are getting their news via social media. It’s important that people regain their trust in the mainstream media due to flaws in social media, such as recent fake news stories posted on Facebook and Twitter.

However, most of the blame on the public’s information deficit is being placed on the media and social media platforms. That blame is partially misplaced. We, as news consumers, need to take the initiative to be more skeptical and questioning about the information that we receive. It’s also essential that people become savvy media consumers in order to wade through the vast ocean of information that is available.

The mainstream media and journalism took a reputation hit during this past election. However, journalists continue to serve an important role in society as watchdogs on the government and politicians to keep them honest and to expose corruption. It’s a profession that we can’t live without in a free society.

Unlike advocacy journalists, the mainstream media should act as an honest broker and be the adult in the room when it comes to media coverage.

The mainstream media is even more essential today in light of the explosion of advocacy journalism outlets that have a clear bias and agenda in their reporting. These media outlets, such as Fox News, Breitbart, and theBlaze on the right, and MSNBC, Counterpunch, and Daily Kos on the left, don’t lie or misrepresent facts, but they skew the facts and news presentation to support their narrative and agenda.

Unlike advocacy journalists, the mainstream media should act as an honest broker and be the adult in the room when it comes to media coverage. It’s important to cover all sides of an issue and to report fairly and accurately. Generally, over the years, despite criticism from conservatives, I think that the media has tried to do this. For the most part, the conservatives’ claims of liberal media bias has been overblown and over exaggerated, but their repetitive assertions over the years has acted as an effective way to play the refs. In reality, mainstream media outlets have not shied away from covering controversies and scandals involving Democrats when they’ve arisen over the years.

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The Society of Professional Journalists eliminated objectivity from its Code of Ethics two decades ago. There is no such thing as perfect objectivity, as reporters have their own personal biases, opinions, and viewpoints. Nonetheless, reporters should strive towards being as objective, neutral, fair, impartial, and balanced as possible for most stories.

However, in addition to reporters being as neutral as possible, it’s important for most news consumers to change their media habits. In my book, Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias, I have an extensive chapter on the concept of being a savvy media consumer.

It’s essential for people to break out of their own echo chambers and to expose themselves to various viewpoints. If you’re liberal, watch MSNBC and read the New York Times editorial page to confirm your viewpoints and get talking points for your arguments with Uncle Joe during Thanksgiving dinner, but also watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, and visit conservative websites like the Blaze and Breitbart. Similarly, in addition to watching Fox News and listening to talk radio, conservatives should visit Huffington Post and Salon.com and watch MSNBC.

It’s also important to verify information as a news consumer.

Right now, we live in parallel news universes where George Zimmerman was presumed guilty on MSNBC and Trayvon Martin was portrayed as a thug on Fox News. Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples was vilified on liberal media outlets but praised for her courage and compared to Rosa Parks by conservative talk radio. Also, realize that many of us have Facebook and Twitter friends who align with our views. Again, try to go outside of that bubble to get information. Don’t just go by the news links that your Aunt Judy sends you on Twitter and Facebook.    

It’s also important to verify information as a news consumer. Make sure to verify breaking news by checking various sources to see if it’s being widely reported. Also be wary of advocacy journalism outlets that have an explicit agenda that will skew their reporting.

People also need to be wary of fake news. There have been many incidents in recent weeks where people have been exposed to fake news reports and rumors, such as the rash of celebrity deaths reported on Facebook and the Washington, D.C. pizzeria attack. There is also a rise in sponsored content, in which companies pay for advertorials in newspapers, magazines, and online. These articles are ads promoting a product, but they are presented in a news article style format which often confuses readers into thinking it’s a genuine news article.

There is a burgeoning educational field known as Media Literacy and News Literacy, which focuses on teaching students at all levels how to be savvy news consumers and critical thinkers. In light of today’s confusing news landscape, these will be essential skills to have and to teach in the future.

 

Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He is author of the book Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias (Prometheus Books).  Email:  larryLTatkins@aol.com    Twitter:  @larryatkins4

This is a revised version of an article that was published in WHYY’s Newsworks.org

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