30 Tips on Using Media from a Media Scholar:

August 13, 2020

Ad Fontes chart on media bias from 2017 (deliberately out of date*)

Here are a few best practices and tips on how to consume the news.

Tl;dr: Pay for your local newspaper before you pay (in money or attention) for any other media source. Read, don’t watch, the news. If you don’t pay for your news with subscriptions or taxes, your news is a lemon. (Publicly funded radio is usually a fair bet; the rest? Nope.) Don’t freak out about, but do manage, media bias: anticipate and know how to not react to your own and others’ biases. Not all biases are disqualifying, but we must shun media biased against facts. Default to trusting Reuters and the AP, then NPR, PBS, BBC, and use the conflicting biases among liberals and conservatives, and further out on the left and on the right, to check one another (for example, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and the Economist). Ignore fringe sources deliberately (unless you are a media scholar, but even then beware you don’t become a monster in hunting them). Don’t get your news on social media (unless you’ve followed the best public professionals on a given topic on Twitter): the echo is deafening. YouTube-only videos are *worse* than Facebook ads (I know few worse insults).

0. Not all biases are equal.

(Fn: scholars, ontological biases exist everywhere, epistemological ones must be resisted. See H. & M. Q. Innis.)

1. Check your own bias first. The truth often stings. The truth, sometimes but not always, should hurt a bit if it is to have any value as truth. The main goal of reading the news should be to *correct* (not confirm) one’s own biases and to inform and enrich one’s worldview. There’s no sustainable system in the world that does not also seek out corrections to its running code worldview. (Name one: I don’t think it exists.) The health of ourselves as individual citizens and as a body politic depends on our seeking self-correction against our own biases. Entities that self-correct survive. How are your news habits helping you self-correct?

2. “The media,” strictly speaking, does not exist. The media does not do one thing — except sell eyeballs. Sometimes you might need to use the phrase to speak broadly, such as in a quick scribble like this, but, whenever every possible, be specific: “the media” as a whole almost never do any one thing politically — they do many conflicting, often self-checking things. Which media outlets do you have in mind? Talk about nameable news sources, not “the media.”

3. All news media have some bias, not all media are equally biased, and most biases can be managed with a few basic best practices and principles.

4. First among those principles, don’t be either the fool or the cynic. The fool is one who believes everything and the cynic is one who disbelieves everything. Anticipate bias by learning not to have an allergy for or against it.

5. Some bias is normal, human, and predictable. The objectivity era is a great ideal, is continuously attempted, and has rarely been achieved. But don’t panic. Here are six nudges for managing your own media bias: (i) don’t dismiss media wholesale because of bias. (ii) Don’t embrace media because they share or confirm your biases. (iii) Don’t reject media because they fight your biases. (iv) If you’re old enough to read, don’t imagine that you don’t have a bias: the rest of the world disagrees. (v) Do simply observe media biases in the news and in yourself. (vi) Go about the vital work of checking those biases.

6. Here’s the key: after habitually checking written sources, good news! (Vii) Now you have earned a costly informed position, not just a free opinion, on a subject. (That said, unless you’re running experiments and reviewing scholarly literature, please shy away from claiming that you’ve researched your position.) After you’ve checked your own biases, you are free not just to speak, but likely to speak usefully. Free speech is necessary celebrated cause but quality speech is better and costly; we enjoy the former not just to shoot off our mouths but to invest in the latter.

7. Speaking of costs and investments, all news media are businesses. All news businesses have different kinds of media bias — (a) bias of interpretation, (b) bias of ownership , and (c) bias against fact. More on a-c below.

8. There are different best practices for dealing with each kind of business-driven media bias. When in doubt, you get what you pay for, so pay for your written news. If what you are reading is free, you (your attention, your political instincts, your clickstreams) are the product the media are selling.

9. Check (a) individual journalist biases by reading a broad range of (at least headlines) across the mainstream news spectrum, or never trust a single article — look for confirming sources in other articles first. Most journalists lean liberal, but most *mainstream* journalists believe in being promoted enough to also check their facts.

10. Counter-counter point: if you want to argue that all mainstream media news is so biased that you can therefore ignore all of it, you also have to argue against the core beliefs in markets and the free press: mainstream journalism, unlike fringe media, thrives on journalist-journalist competition where journalists get promoted for breaking news stories first that are fact-checked and accurate. To do so the workplace culture among journalists is ferociously in favor of free press and free speech. Given all this, mainstream media largely checks itself.

11. Check (b) ownership biases by buying local news.

Ownership media biases in the mainstream news express themselves NOT in what is written but often in slow, invisible agenda setting and muted framing of which stories are *not* written: in other words, mainstream news media outlets are especially believable when they write stories that check and criticize the gazillionaires and media conglomerates that own them; more fancily, the liberal (think freedom, not democrats) tradition has to police itself if it is to remain liberal.

12. Basically all news, even global and national, begins local, and much of the news industry has been facing a slow defunding due to free content on the internet for the last twenty years….

13. So if you have $10 to spend on media a month, spend at least the first $5 on local newspaper subscriptions.

14. Check (c) biases against facts by avoiding fringe media.

Run away from the fringe, shun the tabloids (which are useful only occasionally in breaking seedy news), and gently (with empathy) bias-check folks who share fringe media online.

15. Support media sources that issue corrections, have editorials from multiple sides of the political aisle, and that offer informed views that no less than occasionally check your biases.

16. Support media platforms in content moderating and de-platforming sources with a record of (c) bias against facts.

17. Facebook groups and similar are just awful. Videos that only exist on YouTube are often as bad: they are no better than social media ads — the dross that could not land a more reputable platform. Our attention addiction is feeding its casino-level scams. If the only opposition you every encounter is a troll, something is deeply wrong about the forum where you’re learning things. The troll, while not virtuous (unless they risk their own bodies in their protest), may very well be opposing the vices of our echo chambers. (If all you meet are trolls in where you get your info, sorry, but get out: one cheer for the trolls…)

18. Fringe media is also a business, and a relatively recent business (I’m looking at Breitbart and Drudge before it): it has all three biases in spades, but of a different twist. It uses its philanthropic sources that care more about political bias than profit (more Koch brothers than Bezos) to distort facts to serve its interpretation bias, and do so so flagrantly the fringe can *still* make a profit among the ideologues or ideological-curious readers.

19. Counter-counter point: but, you may say, fringe news sources are more able to speak on topics that mainstream news sources won’t touch: true enough, but for a fringe news story to be useful it must be (i) popular enough to sell, (ii) not coverable in the mainstream where facts matter, AND (iii) grounded in reality (where there is no guarantee in the fringe) — in other words, if you’re believing fringe media because of i and ii, but with no guarantee of iii, you’re making a terrible bet on balance. Fringe sells *because* it doesn’t have to be grounded in reality, and you’re betting the opposite.

20. In other words, it is far more likely that the fringe makes money on hot, non-mainstream, and *unreal* stories than it does so with hot, non-mainstream, and real takes. Even if fringe media occasionally gets a few things right, it is, again, a losing bet to listen to it unchecked. Worse still, making that bet is also what human psychology *wants.* Beware our desires and motivate reasoning. Reuters is your monthly fresh groceries budget (kinda boring but healthy), InfoWars and its ilk are the casino (if the house always wins, leave the house).

21. Again, most of fringe media is just hot, unspeakable takes with minimal reality. Don’t share them on social media, but if you do, please include a framing comment so your followers (who, as a rule, care about you) can make some sense of it. Also, anticipate pushback.

22. Freely discuss, but do not get, your news on social media. Perhaps the worst offenders are Facebook groups, or similar, which are self-confirming groups built to make self-checking impossible. Check facts, and avoid the hall of mirrors phrase “fake news.” When you do discuss, use empathy and evidence. When you criticize, commenting “kinda uncool” is better than “sheeple!” Extend dignity. Don’t use contempt. But do correct with empathy and evidence.

23. If you let your social media feed accidentally inform you (or worse seek out) largely free, exciting, bias-reaffirming stuff on the fringe, you also now have no guarantee that the “truths” you *want* to believe in on the fringe share any relationship with reality itself. (The truth usually doesn’t care what you want; two obvious exceptions: voting and vows.)

24. If you think you are “thinking” by believing only more and more unlikely claims that explain more and more about reality, you may very well be thinking — but not thinking with reality.

25. Reality, as a rule, checks our favorite explanations, and makes us explain less with more evidence, not the other way around. In other words, reality can be found by limiting theories with evidence, and not by limiting evidence with ever bigger and bigger theories. If you look through your thread history and see that something you shared has been “verified false,” please change your news habits now.

26. Worse still: If enough people end up believing the fringe (actually fringes — there are 10,000 fringes), our society will erode a key capacity of our society: to be a people whose majority represents a useful reality. This principal commitment to represent reality underlies the (already weak but best we got right now) liberal tradition of both political democracies and market economies.

27. What about alternatives to our current liberal-market societies? Personally, I’m in favor in theory; the world is fallen and we need to improve it here and now. At the same time, this is my standard: if I am to welcome the right revolution, I must also be very, very, very careful in checking which revolution I support. And, on average, I’d wager, the first, say, 999 out of 1000 society-wide revolution proposals are going to go wrong (still, maybe a third of revolution proposals also have some useful part, and maybe most of them can teach us something, but, taking history at its word, there’s just no guarantee that what comes after the revolution will resemble even the most reasonable revolutionaries’ best intentions). So, let’s improve the world for others by all means, but only with very careful revolution.

28. When in doubt, sit comfortably with uncertainty while trying to back reality. (Most of these points are variations on don’t panic but do engage.) Reality is, shall we say, more probable than not — it exists, so seek to understand it. No one should ever be 100% certain about their command of reality outside of themselves, but a greater fool is he who believes his view is the only reality that matters. As a wise person once said, in the battle between you and the world, back the world.

29. As my 13 year old said yesterday, sometimes it is easier to believe the impossible than to believe the improbable. (If you saw a monkey typing out Shakespeare at a typewriter, you might think the monkey speaks English before you believe the monkey typed a very unlikely set of random characters.) Or to paraphrase the Chinese saying, it is easier to draw a dragon than a dog. With a hat tip to the band, beware imagining dragons.

30. Final tip: If you read in other languages, please read mainstream news in other languages. Our national frame looks different from outside of it. Ideally, a global citizen with a native Indo-European language can manage this by reading in English, one other Indo-European language, and one non-Indo-European language. (For example, English, Spanish, Mandarin; or English, French, Arabic.) That’s not many Americans, alas, but most can get by with the help of, say, a browser’s automatic translation function and newsfeed aggregators.

In summary: read, don’t watch, the news. Don’t panic, but do engage. Don’t fear, but do manage, bias. Buy a local newspaper, trust the AP, Reuters, NPR, PBS, and the BBC. Read critically at least the headlines across mainstream news, both left and right (while remembering that mainstream is often slow to criticize the Bezos version of capitalism that supports it). Don’t read the fringe (unless your job is to critically study it). Gently but firmly criticize, with empathy and evidence, those who indulge fringe sources without comment or criticism. Let’s start with correcting ourselves and caring for others.

P.S. I’m not fully endorsing the attached 2017 Ad Fontes chart, but it is roughly helpful.

P.P.S. Many kind readers have pointed out that there is a more recent Ad Fontes chart (version 5.0). I recommend Googling it too but I am also deliberately *not* linking to it here because (and this is the point) such charts, while helpful, are no solution. In fact, the older chart might even be more useful here since hyper-fixating on it, its details, or the bias of bias observers won’t help. (The graph is a pretty crutch, a bit of intellectual scaffolding that is easy to set up and even easier to dismantle.) Instead, this is the post’s point: lets really pause to reflect on our own best media practices. If a ref makes a bad call, let’s make sure we know the game before crying afoul and appointing ourselves the new refs. Perhaps the best “solution” (in the math class sense of showing your work, not just getting the right answer) to the old trick of who referees the refs is to continue doing the hard work of developing more awareness of ourselves, our own biases, and our sources. No surprise: the folks likely to get that point are also the same ones likely to be reading post-post scripts, not reacting to images. So thanks for reading and sharing!



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Ben Peters

Media prof (TU), author, editor, theorist, historian, ultimate frisbeeist