Being a savvy news consumer

We’re a nation of smart consumers. We kick the tires on a used car, check restaurant and hotel reviews on TripAdvisor and read food labels.

Now we need to wear our consumer hats to follow the news. That’s because the era of objective news coverage is all but over, at least for national news, and the credibility of the news media is at an all-time low. Everyone is concerned over fake news because it’s getting harder to tell what’s real.

biascartoon2In a politically divided nation it’s easy enough to find news that matches your political inclination and, unfortunately, that’s what most people do. Liberals watch the major TV networks and read the New York Times and the Huffington Post. Conservatives watch Fox News and read The Daily Caller and Breitbart. Getting both sides of the story requires venturing outside your echo chamber.

Full disclosure: I am a news junkie. I have a journalism degree, worked as a newspaper reporter in college and worked with the news media during my public relations career. Even in retirement I read two newspapers a day, follow news online and rarely miss the evening TV newscast.

The profession I entered in the 1960s was obsessed with objectivity and accuracy: Check the facts, get the quotes right and cover both sides. I learned that objectivity is hard to achieve because reporting and writing a story requires a cascade of judgment calls on whom to interview, which quotes to use and what facts to highlight or omit. And then some bonehead editor slaps a misleading headline on it. So I consume news with a reporter’s skepticism.

I don’t rely on a single set of news outlets. A personal dashboard on my Internet home page enables me to browse a cafeteria of online news organizations (mostly free of charge) that represent a variety of viewpoints such as the Daily Beast, Newsmax, the Daily Caller and Real Clear Politics. If I’m interested in a story I look at how competing news outlets cover it. If a story shows up only in left-wing or right-wing media I’m a little suspicious. I mostly trust the economic news on the business channels and in the Wall Street Journal and ignore the “news” on Facebook.

My operative question is “Says who?” If the author of an article is a liberal such as Paul Krugman or a conservative such as George Will, I know where they’re coming from. If a reporter quotes only the Sierra Club in an article on the environment, that’s just one side of the story.

Economic pressure to disseminate more news with fewer reporters means that national newspapers no longer have correspondents in Boise or Berlin, and cable newscasts have fewer on-scene reports and more pundit panels. Less reporting and more analysis inevitably blurs the line between news and opinion.

Ironically, the political divide has made the news media more transparent. Because some news outlets have abandoned objectivity to openly declare war on the Trump administration, consumers know what they’re getting and no longer need to look for subtle bias. It would be even easier if commentators on the TV networks wore red or blue jerseys. We’re seeing a return to the roots of American journalism: the partisan press of the early Nineteenth Century.

The good news for consumers is that we no longer need to rely on traditional media as information gatekeepers. A growing number of Internet newsrooms are producing solid journalism, and nonprofit organizations have taken over the investigative reporting the news media used to do. Former President Obama bypassed the news media by appearing on entertainment shows and President Trump has taken this to a new level by using Twitter as a bully pulpit.

Much as I miss the objectivity I learned in journalism school, it’s easier than ever to stay well informed. All we have to do is kick the tires.

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