Sunday, August 22, 2010

An update on how to consume information

(Most of this post is a repeat of something I wrote about six months ago, but I'm adding a really funny cartoon by Pat Bagley of the Salt Lake Tribune and recent comments from other sources on the same issue.)

One of the great challenges for information consumers in the 21st century is figuring out whether to believe what they read, see or hear.

The first rule of thumb is that no information source is infallible. Usually reliable sources like the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, the Economist or the nation’s major magazines and newspapers miss the mark from time to time and publish a story that’s either insufficiently researched or is too influenced by the writer’s personal bias. Journalism involves human beings, which means it’s subject to human error.

In the case of usually reliable and credible information sources, the best way to ensure that what you’re reading is accurate is to check it against other usually reliable, credible information sources.

Perhaps understandably, we are all too eager to accept as gospel information or stories that conform to our personal politics or values, regardless of the veracity of the source. We tend to drift toward sources that skew toward our value set. Sources that want to be seen as credible all too often insert a particular political spin to their coverage include such TV networks and web sites as MSNBC, Fox, Huffington Post, and The Drudge Report.

Of course all the national political magazines like The Nation, New Republic, American Conservative and National Review, among many others, make no pretense of applying any standards of journalism to their work – they are opinion, pure and simple. Take them for what they are.

"How is one to be judged as educated?" wrote Debu Majumdar in the Post Register recently.
"In the 19th century, knowledge of the classics and philosophy was the criteria. I propose in this century it should be the ability to decipher what is true in the midst of misinformation and disinformation. Information was power before, but now power is deciding what, or how much, is true."
Increasingly, there are the information sources that are filled with nothing but conjecture, innuendo, spin, blather and even hatred and lies. Many of the chain e-mails so popular nowadays fall into this category – they come across as credible information when they are essentially complete fiction. But how to tell?

One good rule of thumb is the same one we apply to food that may have been in the refrigerator too long but looks OK – when in doubt, throw it out. Unless an unsolicited e-mail provides sufficient sourcing and background information for a claim, it’s probably bogus.

We’ve all received these – debunked claims that Pres. Barrack Obama isn’t an American citizen, or that the New World Order is secretly controlling the global economy. While this is perfect fodder for conspiracy theorists, the information is almost always just plain wrong.

If you aren’t willing to just hit “delete” on this sort of material, there are a number of Web sites that specialize in investigating urban myths and other nonsensical material floating around the Internet, including these two: and, the latter being run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

Jack Shafer, blogger for Slate, takes a more prosaic approach to the issue in his post about the fact that nearly one in five Americans still believes that President Obama is Muslim.
I'd be more upset about the Pew poll if a Gallup Poll hadn't also reported that 18 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth or that only 18 percent of Americans believe all or most of what is published in the New York Times. We can count on stupidity, willful ignorance, and intellectual sloth to plague us 100 percent of the time. All we can do is fight the darkness with light.
The bottom line is, not all “news” is created equal. It's the responsibility of the consumer to learn the skills necessary to differentiate fact from fiction, and it's the job of newspapers to differentiate themselves from other media by providing credible and reliable journalism.

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