A few years ago, I was talking to my wife’s grandmother about something she’d heard on television. She was convinced if it was said on TV, it can’t be wrong.
After all, anything less would be false advertising, and that’s illegal. Right?
At the time, I shrugged off that unfortunate ignorance about freedom of speech as an anomaly confined to a small number of people limited to an older age demographic who did not grow up in an age of disinformation, misinformation and gaslighting.
But last month, the Pew Research Center, the preeminent source of research on media, released a disheartening study that showed our newspaper and our news team exactly what we’re dealing with these days.
Among its findings, more than half of Americans could not correctly identify whether one-third of three prominent sources of news has its journalists do their own reporting.
On the list: the Wall Street Journal, ABC News and Facebook. Those three alone should be automatic answers for everyone – or so I thought.
Of course the Wall Street Journal, one of the most powerful news organizations in our country, does its own reporting. And of course ABC News does – each night, promotional ads during the primetime hours remind us of that.
And of course, what felt most obvious to me but apparently not to others, Facebook does not.
Also on the list were Google News and Apple News, which do nothing but collect news published by other outlets, and the Huffington Post, which is a hybrid, aggregating lots of other stories but publishing some of its own material, as well.
I was telling my wife about the findings, and was surprised to find she wasn’t certain about all of them, either. Given that she’s far more media savvy than the average, as the wife of a longtime newspaper editor, I figured maybe part of it is simply an issue with understanding the question.
After all, what it comes down to is should you trust that this news outlet actually has access to real information and isn’t just repeating what someone else said? Or worse, rearranging someone else’s reporting out of context and with an intentional slant, as happens constantly on propaganda sites.
When I brought up the Pew study to our news editor, Kimberly Wethal, she pointed out that even her mother, another person who puts effort into understanding the news she consumes, has had trouble distinguishing among sources for reliability and comes to her reporter daughter when she’s not sure.
I guess we “elite” media in our “ivory towers” might have a little street learning to do.
It’s going to be an uphill climb. The most recent statistics I’ve seen show there are about 10 public relations professionals in the United States for every newspaper reporter and editor. Even if you add in television and radio, where the depth of reporting tends to be much lower, we’re still looking at around 8-1.
That’s a nearly impossible battle even with the most seasoned veterans, and of course, many thousands of seasoned journalists have been shown the door over the past decade as a result of newspaper layoffs and consolidations.
Those long odds don’t even account for the growing number of media organizations passing themselves off as legitimate news outlets that are actually no more than propaganda. Just the other day, I read about an organization that has created 1,300 online local news outlets in which all of the stories are built from information recycled and repurposed from existing local newspapers. Among them are 34 sites in Illinois with names and visual aesthetics like our own community weeklies.
The fact is, it’s impossible for legitimate news organizations to compete without more media literacy. And we can’t educate people we can’t reach.
But you can.
If you are media literate – if you know that Google News doesn’t write its own stories, that Facebook doesn’t have a reporting staff, that the pretty-looking Epoch Times that comes to your doorstep is a propaganda vehicle, that governments without watchdog newspapers cost citizens more and that rewritten press releases are not reporting, help us out.
Educate your friends, family and neighbors. Show them what real reporting does for a community, how it matters.
After all, if you’re reading this column, you probably are familiar with at least one of our community newspapers and you know that we cover all sides of a story and get to know the sources of our information personally.
And hopefully, those of you who read our community newspapers regularly can tell that almost every bit of it is local and the vast majority is original.
As this awful year comes to a close, with the hope of a vaccine in our sights and dreams of better days in 2021, please don’t forget – or let anyone who will listen to you forget – the importance of trusted news in our lives.