There’s a danger in the internet and social media. The notion that information is enough, that more and more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information – gets very dangerous. —Edward de Bono
CAUTION: YOU ARE CONSUMING MEDIA. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
We changed brands of dog food this morning. We felt the dog wasn’t getting enough from his previous brand, so we did a little bit of research and switched. This morning, I didn’t feel we’d done enough research. The dog normally comes in from our morning walk, eats a little, then falls fast asleep because 4:00 AM is early even for a dog. Except this morning, after inhaling the new food, he didn’t go to sleep. He’s been bouncing around all over the place, terrifying the cats, and getting himself into trouble. So, I hit the brand’s website to double-check the ingredients. I needed specific information and found it on the brand’s website. That makes the dog food company a media provider.
A number of my friends in journalism were sharing this article from the Washington Post decrying how that there really is no such thing as “the media” and, if there is, WaPo certainly isn’t part of it. The argument author Paul Farhi attempts to make is that the term “the media” is too broad to be defining. If one defines “the media” according to the constraints given by The Oxford Dictionary, then practically everything around you is, technically “the media.” Here’s the definition:
Not Your Grandfather’s Newspaper
When I first woke up this morning, I knew that the headlines would be dominated by spin on last night’s presidential debate. Among the myriad of headlines was this one: The Media Calls Debate For Clinton. I’d link you to the article, but it has since been removed (apparently an editor woke up). My point is that the article was a case of one information source blamed another information source for communicating information. Seems rather silly, doesn’t it?
When one puts something on the Internet, whether it’s a Facebook status or a tweet or your grandmother’s cookie recipe, there is one underlying purpose: to communicate. When one puts something on the Internet, one is engaging in the digital form of publishing. That makes you part of “the media” and a consumer of media at the same time. Therefore, taking this circular logic all the way around, when one criticizes “the media” online, they are ultimately criticizing themselves.
Yeah, stop and let that sink in for a moment. Hurts the brain a little, doesn’t it?
Believe it or not, all these media sources are less than 100 years old. Only newspapers and printed leaflets existed in 1916. Even the first talking movie, The Jazz Singer, was over a decade away. With so few choices for information, trust in those sources ran high. Chances are, in most areas, your grandparents or great-grandparents knew who published the local newspaper. They probably went to the same church, were members of the same civic groups. Few people would have thought of publishing their own paper or printing their own leaflets. Information needed to be important if it was going to be distributed.
Contrast that to current standards where “if you think it then you must tweet it,” or something like that.
What We Say
Gallup released a poll earlier this month with the headline: American’s Trust In Mass Media Sinks To New Low. Here’s the actual question and how the long-term graph looks:
Notice that Gallup attempts some nebulous framing of the question by adding the qualifier “mass” to “media,” so as to restrict opinions to what might once have been regarded as “legitimate” news sources—the ones your grandparents would have trusted. Given the overwhelming number of “news” sites, especially when one includes aggregators such as Huffington Post and Breitbart, Gallup’s question is still too broad to have any real, definitive meaning. If the survey tells us anything, and that point would certainly be arguable, it is that we only trust a limited number of the information sources we access.
Similarly, Hart Research, acting on behalf of NBC News and The Wall Street Journal, asked half the respondents of a 1,000-person survey to “rate your feelings” toward “several public figures, groups, and organizations.” In the total list, “the news media” ranked toward the bottom with only a 19% positive response, between Donald Trump (28% positive response) and Vladimir Putin (6% positive response). However, once again, the lack of a narrow definition calls the results into question. Some people might consider satire sights such as The Onion part of the news media. Others might consider aggregators part of the news media. Neither is there any delineation between sources that provide a majority of reporter-based editorial content and those that are merely an omnibus of collected opinion.
What We Mean
What is generally considered “news” in this Internet-driven age is a far cry from the traditional expectations of journalism. There are millions of websites that distribute information related to current topics. For many people, that makes those sources “news.” Never mind the fact that they’re opinions we’ve written ourselves, largely to amuse ourselves. By the broad contemporary definition, this website might, at least on some days, considered a news source. That scares me because, despite the sometimes excessive amount of research we put into an article, it is never our intent to provide anything more than an opinion.
Perhaps even more frightening is how frequently people refer to social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, as part of the news media. Neither site has reporters or editors controlling what you see or don’t see. All the information flowing through those sites is curated by one person: you. You decide what is “news” and what is “information” and what is “entertainment.” What’s telling is that a very large number of people make absolutely no distinction between those categories. They simply toss everything under the general heading of “the media.”
And they don’t trust it. Which, again, using that circular logic, means we don’t trust ourselves. We probably shouldn’t. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’ve proven that we’re not terribly judicious in the media we consume. If we were, debunking sites like Snopes wouldn’t get nearly as much traffic. On any given day, we publish more false information through our own social media accounts than all the newspapers and news networks combined. We distrust “the media” because we know, secretly, that we are complicit in spreading rumor more than fact.
A Difficult Diet
Like a person whose health deteriorates from eating only fast food, the solution to our media loathing starts with a very harsh reality: we need to cut back. Continuing the fast food metaphor, we need to pay more attention to the source of what we’re consuming. Sure, there are days when ordering pizza makes sense for our schedule, but that doesn’t happen every day. Most days we’re more conscientious about what we consume. The same is true of media. Some days I need the smile I get from a video on Funny Or Die. Making that my source for breaking news and information, though, is just silly. I’m going to check my local paper, then local television news, then national news sources if applicable. I’m damn sure not going to rely on Facebook or Twitter.
We have a preponderance of choice. Media surrounds us already and as the Internet of Things grows the amount of media being thrown at us is going to get worse. We need to start making those tough choices now. Back off the Buzzfeeds and TMZs, limiting them to inconsequential topics that we probably shouldn’t care about in the first place. Pay more attention to the source of our information. Hint: anytime you see an article tagged as “sponsored,” know that it was written by someone, or on behalf of someone, who has a vested financial interest in the topic. Therefore, it’s not news. Recognise opinion for what it is: someone else’s viewpoint, not news.
If we don’t trust media it’s because both the media we create and our choice of media to consume are not trustworthy. The problem is us. We’ve gotten fat on easily available, always accessible media. Saying we distrust “the media” is like saying we don’t like mac & cheese while a fresh bowl sits in front of us. We need to put ourselves on a media diet and see just how much our opinions change.