A Primer for the Masses: Trusting Information

I had a lot of discussions with my media classes this past week about what happened in Boston and how the news media have covered these events. We’ve had very good conversations about the information we were getting, its quality, and whether it could be trusted.

Much focus has been on the journalists and how they were performing their jobs. It’s appropriate and necessary. However, I don’t want to let the public off the hook, either. News consumers — all of us — have responsibility in this, too. We need to be educated about determining the legitimacy of the information we get. Here’s a short primer that I think will help.

Determining the veracity of tweets.

Twitter is getting a lot of attention, as it should, for the role it played in disseminating information during the crisis in Boston. Twitter can be a terrific source of information, but users need to understand how to evaluate both the information and the people who are providing it.

First of all, look at the person’s Twitter pic. If it’s questionable, that’s a strike. Then look at the Twitter bio. If it contains phrases such as “Just tryin’ to live the sweet life,” “Master of my domain,” or any variant of “Follow me and I’ll follow you back,” that person immediately goes in my “doubtful” column. However, if that bio contains information about that person’s job, especially if it’s one tied to journalism, it’ll usually have a link to a website. Go to that website to verify the person’s connection. If it’s a legacy media site, such as The Boston Globe, that places the person higher on my believability scale. If the person isn’t linked to a legacy media site but rather a blog or some other kind of organization, I look at previous content that person has produced. That lets me know if the person adheres to journalistic standards or tends to be partisan or propagandistic.

Look at the person’s location. If the person is located where the action is, that’s something positive to consider. It doesn’t mean that person is actually a witness, though. You’ve still got to be careful with that. If the person has a really low number of followers, that’s another thing to consider.

Finally, I look at the person’s other tweets. You can learn a lot about people simply by examining their tweets. If the tweets are snarky, childish, mean or inane, I mark that person off of my potentially-trustworthy list.

There’s lots of propaganda on Facebook.

Facebook has some fantastic qualities. It’s great for learning about what our friends are up to and how they feel about all manner of issues. But my rule of thumb is that I don’t believe any of those politicized memes floating around. I don’t “Like” them and I don’t share them with friends. They are notoriously inaccurate, and your friends who are sharing them with you don’t bother to check on the legitimacy of the information. We don’t even know where these memes come from, really, and what kind of agenda the creator has. We, as media consumers, should have an obligation to verify information before we pass it along to our friends. Otherwise, you’re a propagandist or a tool of the propagandists.

Be skeptical of the cable networks.

The primary function of the American cable networks is not to provide us with information that helps make sense of our world. Their primary function is to make money for their corporate owners. These networks make money through advertisements, and they can charge higher advertising rates if they have larger audiences. We live in a lowest common denominator era of television programming, so whatever gets the most eyeballs is what the networks will pursue. That’s why you find fewer amounts of legitimate news programming on cable. It’s awash in opinion programs and punditry, and that attracts viewers. Cable also exhibits a very strong “let’s get it first, and if it’s wrong, we’ll correct it later” mentality. That is not showing respect for you, the audience. Don’t trust a journalism organization that places being first over being correct.

Reading the information tea leaves.

When investigators released the images of the two brothers on Thursday, my newspaper students were about to start their weekly assignment meeting. One of them asked if I thought the information was good, and I said “yes.” Here’s why. The investigators went before an international audience with this information. Law enforcement and security officials stood before cameras and clearly identified themselves. They took questions. It is exceedingly unlikely that investigators would go before the public like that unless they were absolutely sure of their information. Furthermore, the info was being delivered directly to the public, not through the filter of a journalist or journalism organization. These factors make it highly likely that this is good information.

On the other hand, be very skeptical of information that is attributed to anonymous sources or “someone with knowledge of the investigation.” Several news organizations got screwed by doing that this past week. Anonymous sources are unaccountable to the public. They can say whatever they want — and that includes lying. I am mightily suspicious of people who want to provide information but won’t put their names to it. (I support whistleblowers, though, because that is a completely different issue.) As best as you can, keep track of the journalists who use a lot of anonymous sources. If the information ultimately checks out to be reliable, that journalist must have a pretty good source list. However, if that info is wrong more often than correct, avoid that reporter’s work.

Take a mass communication course.

I’ve said in class that we need engineers, physicians, teachers, and all of the other professions out there that have academic components tied to them. However, students studying mass communication have a leg up. Everyone consumes media messages every day. Everyone is influenced by them. Media is a constant presence in our lives, and we need to understand how the system works and the effects this system has on ourselves and our society. Communication students talk about this every day. You, the news consuming public, need to have a tighter grip on this phenomenon, too. If you’re a college student or plan to be one, take an introductory communication course. This type of course should be a requirement of every university student in the country. If you’re no longer in school, educate yourself about America’s mass communication system.

It’s on you.

The more you understand how the mass media process works, the better you’ll be at determining what is legitimate information and whether the source is trustworthy. The responsibility, ultimately, is yours.

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