Are You Reading the News Wrong?

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The news industry isn’t particularly flourishing these days, in part because it’s a changing field going online more and more, and still looking for ways to adapt and survive without losing integrity and depth. At times the industry fails miserably at this, and other times it retains a heartening strength that harkens back to the day of His Girl Friday and the press as it was before Buzzfeed. Jonathan Rauch recently wrote a piece for Brookings on the challenges facing journalism that made some harsh but fair points.

“Over the past 50 or more years, we journalists have had the luxury of thinking of journalism as our product, and of readers as our customers. It was a great ethic to maintain, but from an economic point of view it was never right,” Rauch said. “In the newspaper business, our real customers were our advertisers, who paid the bills; our product was our readers, whose eyeballs we sold to advertisers; our journalism was our marketing hook, luring readers.” In today’s age, you could go even further, arguing that titles and excerpts are marketing hooks, and mouse clicks and iPhone taps the commodity being sold. That has certainly not prevented incredible journalism, just as how the lack of Internet never stopped some truly wretched reporting in the 1950s, either.

But regardless of how the media is changing, for better or for worse, it serves an important role in today’s society. For one thing, it’s the main source of information and analysis on current events, politics, and changes in our society and societies around the world. It’s how civilians keep tabs on government, how the government keeps tabs on public opinion, and how the global community stays connected. It’s not the only way, of course, but it’s a vital part of the system. It’s why so many nations with human rights violations don’t allow true freedom of the press — the first sign of crumbling national integrity is often aggression against and the suppression of journalists.

While there may be no right or wrong way to educate oneself on current events, there are better strategies for a fuller and more well-rounded intake of information. The Pew Research Center shed some light on how Americans access and understand/trust their news media, splitting its results based on liberal and conservative readers. Both sides seem to have some key failures in how they filter their understanding of events, or, indeed, fail to filter them.

Where liberals go wrong

Pew shows that “consistent liberals” have a tendency to pull news from a range of sources, which is a strength, though a greater diversity and number of sources would be wise.

Fifteen percent of these respondents said they go to CNN, 12% to MSNBC, 13% to NPR, and 10% to The New York Times. However, reading more source material, like from U.N. or Human Rights Watch reports, as well as full data analysis from sources like FiveThirtyEight and Brookings, can add more complete and nuanced views. It’s akin to a self-identified liberal taking in Fox News: While painful for that person at times, the practice can help illustrate the opposing viewpoint, even if it’s not one that is shared.

Related to this is the tendency that liberals in the poll had to befriend social networking contacts for political reasons. On one hand, it is perfectly reasonable to have acquaintances with shared interests, but on the other hand, it reminds us of the importance of filtering out ideas we may not agree with.

Finally, the poll shows that liberals tend to trust more news sources than conservatives, with 28 out 36 named as being more trusted than distrusted. While it’s important to be able to take some stock in news, it’s also important to approach such information with a degree of healthy skepticism.

Where conservatives go wrong

Unlike liberals, conservatives have more of a tendency to distrust media, saying 24 of 36 provided sources are more mistrusted than trusted, which is perhaps an advantage, until you consider the sources they tend to draw news from — specifically, the fact that they tend to draw information from only one source overwhelmingly: Fox News. Forty-seven percent of respondents in the Pew poll said that Fox is their main news source. Going hand-in-hand with that, Pew reports that conservatives are more likely to be exposed to political views in line with their own on Facebook, potentially pointing to a tendency to surround themselves with people of like minds.

Diversity in news intake is an important aspect of getting a well-rounded view of events, policy, and politics. Even if 90% of the time the material does not ring true to a reader, if 10% of the time it allows for a more thorough understanding, it’s worth it — especially given the fact that most of the time it will leave the reader more educated on both sides of the argument. Sometimes reading a viewpoint from overseas can shed new light on issues being retold from the same angle, and reading about major events from local sources can sometimes give a more close-to-the-issue perspective.

Follow Anthea on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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