I used to wonder -- still do in fact -- if many people are still interested in facts when it comes to arguments. But now my question is an even larger one: Are people still interested in credible sources who deliver information, or just familiar ones?
Or do people require information to be sourced at all? If statements just appear on the screen and agree with your own ideas, isn't that self-evident truth?
There is a link to digital media and citizen journalism here, so bear with me a moment and we'll get there.
Expertise in peril?
My wife Anne showed me an interesting op-ed piece yesterday called, "The Death of Expertise," written by Tom Nichols, a professor of national security for the U.S. Naval War College. In part, here is what he says:
"I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise": a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all."
It is important to note that an editor's note on this piece clearly states, "The views expressed are entirely his own." Nichols' credentials are also provided so readers can evaluate his thoughts in light of them.
The Shadow World
Years ago journailst/philosopher Walter Lippmann warned journalists of the fierce responsibility they have in presenting a representation of reality, or what I call a "shadow world." You need to get it right, Lippmann warned, because people react to those pictures, and they react in the real world.
As history has taught us, we even go to war over those representations, whether they are true or not.
A digital convenience
One obvious connection with the digital media is that it is so very easy to put assertions, accusations, and ideologies on the Web and have them masquerade as fact-based reporting. And, in case it has escaped anyone's attention, that is increasingly the content appearing regularly on your Facebook page, especially if you have any politically passionate friends.
I often tell my university students that, to some degree, each of us has become a journalist today, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But it also easier to parade opinion as fact.
It seems to me there are at least two levels to this kind of charade:
1. Individuals post their own opinions and assume they will be read as fact. (ie. "Barry Obama is intentionally trying to destroy America.")
2. Individuals post "stories" from online publications purporting to be newspapers or news sites. Those publications then publish sourceless stories laden with overt opinion.
A couple examples
Here is an example of that, from the July 28 home page of The Conservative Tribune:
"The Obama administration has manufactured a border crisis in order to further their agenda of passing amnesty for illegals and effectively increasing the Democratic voter block, but there was one thing they didn’t count on: state governments using their Tenth Amendment powers to take matters into their own hands."
Does anyone else see a source that I'm missing here? Because there is none in this paragraph, nor the one to follow that, nor the one to follow that. I've been working in journalism a long time, and there is no more basic rule in news reporting than the need to source a statement; especially an opinion.
Another example comes from The Conservative Post. It appears under the headline, "President Obama Asks for $500 million to fund ISIS in Syria."
"The American government funded Al-Quaeda in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi. The American government funded Ukranian rebel groups to take over the sale of natural gas to europe (sic). Hillary Clinton fought to keep Boko Haram off the terror list because we fund them AND Al-Shabab. This is what the whole Iran Contra thing was about."
I only cite these two publication examples because they keep appearing on my own Facebook page with regularity. And my beef is not with someone having political opinions, but in parading them as fact in what some people will construe as a real news site simply because it carries the name "Tribune" or "Post" and it looks like other news sites like The San Diego Tribune or Washington Post look.
To be sure, I also see FB posts from more liberal sites like The Nation or NPR, but at least those sites routinely source their statements and opinions and so engage in news reporting. Or, if it is an op-ed piece, column, or blog, it carries a clear disclaimer like the earlier one cited on the article, "The Death of Expertise."
I also find it odd that many people use the term "mainstream media" derisively (often calling it the "lamestream media"), finding fault in the concept of traditional reporting which is based upon sources (hopefully credible ones), facts as well as they can be uncovered, and an attempt at getting all sides to a controversy. It is what is commonly called, "the best attainable version of the truth." I'm not sure what alternative could be preferred to this kind of journalism.
Clearly, some news media do a better job at journalism than others. Cable television networks, for example, are struggling and often falling victim to viewpoint-based reporting.
Years ago, I advised students publishing a college newspaper. One of the first challenges I found was that these new journalists-in-training found it easier and more convenient to opine than to report. Sometimes it was obvious, as in writing opinions without sources. Sometimes it was a little more subtle. I'll never forget the headline over a story about a political commentator who appeared on campus. It read, "Glenn Becks Delivers the Truth."
I wonder if that editor might have wound up at The Conservative Tribune or The Conservative Post, because what I read yesterday from those sites on my FB page sounded a lot like that college student's version of journalism.
Do liberals opine? You bet. Do they often parade it as truth, especially around election time? Of course. What I'm describing exists on both sides. It has just been popping up more blatantly on my FB page from the right more than the left.
I consider myself a political moderate. I grew up in Oklahoma, lived in Memphis, but also spent a decade in Boston. My complaint is not against political opinions. My complaint comes from a journalist who is asking other journalists to just do the basic job of reporting, and for the news consumer to think about what they are reading before considering it all fact.
BTW, this is a blog, and any unsourced views expressed here are my own.
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