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How to Stop the Spread of BS: Be a Better News Consumer

If there is one thing that is obvious during this, shal we say, unusual, election season, it is that the journalism profession is not what it once what. And yes, I blame the press itself, for the most part. However, we, the news consumers deserve just as much blame. Whereas journalists have been creating false equivalencies between Democrats and Republicans for decades, culminating in the same types of ridiculous equivalencies between Clinton and Trump throughout this election cycle, there is someone else I blame here.

Before I explain, I’d like to ask a question. Did you know the word “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?

Now, before you go look that up to prove me wrong, you should look up two other words that are necessary for intelligent news viewing:

Skepticism and discernment.

Yes, that’s right. I blame news consumers for a lot of what has led to this election. Most of us have to get better at information gathering. The fact is, there are a lot of facts to be had out there, but it’s up to us to find them and pass those on. For example, there may be some good information in a television talking head show or a political talk radio show, but such programs are not “news.” Even if the hosts are reporters, in those positions, they’re offering opinion. In other words, even if they are journalists, when they’re offering up their opinions, they are not being journalists, but pundits. There can be some journalism behind it, but it is not, in and of itself, journalism.

There is nothing wrong with punditry. News analysis can be useful and I don’t fault those who engage in it. Sometimes, listening to the opinion of someone you trust can help you understand issues more completely.  For example, Walter Cronkite’s punditry on Vietnam was probably a key to most folks understanding what a complete mess that was. But you have to accept opinion for what it is and learn to extract the nuggets of “fact” and use your intelligence to determine their veracity.

There is a lot of great journalism out there, on just about every subject, But it seems to be buried these days beneath a mountain of opinion. Cable news really isn’t “news”  most of the time these days, and I’m not just talking about Fox. Journalism is hard work. Done well, it can uncover the truth and make our lives better.

Unfortunately, it’s far too easy to call oneself a “journalist” these days, and it shouldn’t be. Someone with a great penchant for research on Google or LexisNexis, who can put facts together is not an “investigative journalist,” no matter what that person thinks of himself. Think a little. If I’m searching Google and LexisNexis online, I’m finding sources that other people have already researched and written about. They did the journalistic work, not me. Sitting in a villa in Brazil and offering up a strident opinion on hundreds of thousands of supposedly secret documents dumped in your lap and releasing them is not in and of itself “investigative journalism.” That’s true, even if a billionaire has decided to buy you a blog and plows $250 million into it.

We have a responsibility as consumers of news. While the journalist does the hard work of uncovering the story, it’s our job to make sure others know about it. We also have a duty to get the story right, so we have to check its veracity before we pass it on as “fact.” A real reporter enters a story with nothing but questions and will never publish a story until he or she has solid answers to all questions that matter. Don’t ever trust a “news story” that asks more questions than it answers. A real news story doesn’t ask questions, it provides solid, provable answers.

When I say “solid answers,” I surely don’t mean hearsay from that jerk “Sumsay,” who sometimes seems to be the “go to” expert on everything. Sorry, faux journalists, but you don’t have a story because you believe something happened, and “Sumsay” agrees with you. It only becomes a story when you are able to prove something happened. I can hand two homeless people $5 each, and get them both to say, “The moon is made of vanilla ice cream.” That would allow me to claim “Sumsay the moon is made of vanilla ice cream,” but it’s still untrue. Always be suspicious of any news story in which someone claims “some people say” anything. Hell; I can always find someone willing to say something untrue. I used to see a woman on Hollywood Blvd pushing a shopping cart and spouting all kinds of things off the top of her head, as part of her conversation with someone I couldn’t see. What if I quoted her? Would that be news?

Our penchant for believing crap has gotten bad, to the point that there are tens of thousands of web sites designed to sell you their brand of faux journalism. They range from shoestring one-man operations to $300 million behemoths that pay contractors less than minimum wage to “churn” stories. “Churning” basically consists of “writers” sitting at home in their underwear reading news from other sources and re-writing it for the blog, “creating” up to 60 pieces a day. I can’t believe I have to say this, but if you’re writing 60 pieces a day, you’re not a journalist, and you’re wasting a lot of the time you’ll need to become one. I also think the bar for plagiarism is far too high, but that’s just me.

And yes, you can scream and point to the owners and editors of these blogs for the garbage they’re putting out there, but it’s your fault as consumers, because you click on them, and ReTweet them, and post them to Facebook and otherwise help them raise money to keep on churning.

Journalism is not an easy vocation, but there is nothing better in this world than a compelling news piece that is thoroughly researched and just tells the story as it is. There are many such stories, but you have to look hard for them in the sea of crap that’s out there.

Just because a website or blog calls itself “news” doesn’t mean it is news. I mean, if I called myself a chimney, I wouldn’t be one. Anyone twelve-year-old can put up a blog, call it news, and claim to be a journalist; that doesn’t make them a journalist. In fact, most are not. There are some sure signs that someone is NOT a journalist. For example:

  • If someone like, say, Julian Assange, is telling you a great story is coming that will “bring (someone) down,” write them off, yawn and go elsewhere. Real journalists with real stories never let the cat out of the bag until they can prove what they claim. Besides the element of surprise, there is also the reality that some stories fall apart at the last minute.
  • A real journalist will usually wait until he or she has the entire story before asking for comment from those involved. A real journalist will never publicly bait the target of an investigation to try to get them to admit something. Mainly, that’s because they never will. A real journalist will understand that.
  • A real journalist would never openly trash anyone, especially by asking “probing” questions in public, on Twitter or Facebook. They are also not cowards, hiding behind a “posse” of like-minded people.
  • Real journalists would never write a fact-free piece that merely asks a series of questions. If a story insinuates that something might have happened, but they can’t prove it, laugh at them and move on.
  • Real journalists don’t post their “evidence” in advance of the story, especially if the evidence might have been obtained illegally. Context matters to a real journalist.
  • Real journalism is not about pure sensationalism. Gossip columns are not journalism. If you can’t tell the difference between TMZ and the front page of the New York Times, you might want to see a doctor because you may have had a concussion recently. I know all sorts of things about all sorts of people, too. If I write them down, that doesn’t make me a journalist. Proving that what I say is true is what would make me a journalist.

When you read or hear something anywhere — on television, on the radio, online, etc. — and it’s not from a high-profile source known for self-policing, please check it out before you pass it along. Skepticism is the news consumer’s best asset. But don’t just check the “facts” in the story. It’s also helpful to look at the blog, and the background of the so-called “journalist,” because it might save you some time. There are a number of self-described “journalists” who,  if they told me it was raining and I was getting wet, would still cause me to look up at the sky. If you check the “about” section of a blog or a “news” site and you learn nothing, be skeptical. Only use that site as a source for keywords to plug into a search engine.

I have fallen into this trap myself at time, which is how I learned. I was burned when I wrote a story about the Obama Administration and the Occupy Movement and subsequentl;y found out that the story was from an entertainment reporter from a fake “news site” that he started because he wanted more respect. The source for the story was someone who allegedly “worked in the White House.”  So, I checked a few other sources and his story became untenable. He had no access to anyone in the White House.

I know of one “journalist” who enjoys an undeserved reputation as an “investigative journalist,” even though he’s been called out several times for not corroborating evidence used in articles that were later to be found false. In other words, he didn’t do the work a journalist is supposed to do. Not surprisingly, this “journalist” has also been cited for plagiarism. Another one hasn’t set foot in the US for years, except to make an occasional TV appearance. Then, there are the myriad pretenders out there; who claim to be “big” journalists and are vying to become associated with a deceased carnival barker type blogger. They routinely make things up, or they recycle stories that were reported years ago, hoping that no one will check on them, and realize they’re revising history.

Many blogs only exist for money, and I wish I was only talking about sites representing the right. The goal for many “news” sites is click-bait. They want you to click on their stories because that’s how they get paid, either from ads or from ideologically-driven benefactors, who often pay them for dirty tricks.

It’s time news consumers stopped being so gullible and started looking for good information. You can make a case that journalists a duty to tell the truth, and you’d be right, but so do we, as news consumers.

By the way, the word “gullible” really is in the dictionary. Don’t be so…

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