The media are biased. Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal -- they're all biased. They're biased in different ways, in varying degrees, and for various reasons. They're also, at times, voyeuristic, unprofessional, vapid, and incorrect. And all of this begs the question: how can one consume news without walking away either wrong or disenchanted?
In some ways, we are slaves to the news. But there are things that we can do as conscientious listeners, watchers, and readers of news that can make us more effective and knowledgeable about the world around us. It's called media literacy and it describes the set of skills we all have (or hope to have) that allow us to "access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information" from a wide variety of media. It's the ability to discern fact from fluff, and information from entertainment. It's an important skill, like knowing how to read.
Why is this so important?
Being a conscientious news consumer is vital to the success of so many facets of every day life. Understanding the issues helps keep those with power in check. Recognizing problems amidst a flurry of contradictory media messages is essential to letting governments know when we disagree and when we have a problem. Public opinion is only as powerful as our media literacy is sharp.
There are so many news outlets available to us today. Far more than ten, twenty, or fifty years ago. There are more TV news stations, websites, and an infinite number of blogs willing to impart their spin, their opinion, or their version of the facts. In a way, this can be beneficial to society, but only if we, as consumers, have the tools necessary to distinguish fact from the vast mountain of information at our fingertips.
Media is absolutely, undisputedly crucial to a successful democracy. It would be impossible to live in our world without it. But the media we have is far from perfect. And thus, there are things we can do to improve our media literacy and account for these deficiencies.
What can we do?
1. Vary our sources
Just as you wouldn't trust one professor to teach you your entire education (Mr. Feeny from Boy Meets World aside), getting your news from one source will skew your opinions and beliefs about important issues. Different outlets have different sets of advertisers, stockholders, and core viewers to please, creating biased news or dumbed down infotainment. Jon Stewart, for his part, has made a career poking fun at this absurdity.
Taking an individual source of news as one valuable piece of information out of many will give consumers more knowledge and a better understanding of the facts. So read the newspaper, listen to news radio, watch your local news, and test out different outlets, like the new Al Jazeera America, which just launched, promising to be controversial, hard-hitting, and focused on the facts. Find five to seven diverse sources that you enjoy and take in a few stories from each one, every single day.
2. Embrace bias
Bias can give us a better understanding of the news if we approach it in the right way. Different sources adopt different tones, highlight different facts, and discuss stories in different contexts. Watching the talking heads on Fox News and MSNBC characterize a presidential debate, you'd think they weren't watching the same thing. Reading, watching, and listening with a critical eye and an engaged mind will increase media literacy and make you a more effective news consumer.
It may also make you totally disenchanted by hundreds of news outlets, which operate seemingly under two completely different sets of facts. But the only way to understand the nuggets of truth inside them all is to watch and decide for yourself.
3. Slow news is far more accurate and reliable
The 24-hour news cycle has thrown out the window the idea that accurate news reporting is righteous. Instead, reporting news first (sometimes by mere seconds) is prized, especially on 24-hour cable news. Getting information quickly is one of the greatest gifts of our modern age, but when it comes to news, it shouldn't be at the expense of quality. It makes the whole industry look laughably inadequate when they misreport important news with such regularity and without apology -- like when both CNN and Fox somehow got wrong the Supreme Court's Affordable Care Act ruling.
But why would the news outlets stop if it can help increase their ratings? They won't. So we have to be conscious of this and not let our desire to tweet the news before our friends override our desire to understand the facts.
4. Social media isn't #news
Social media can help incite a revolution. But that doesn't make it a legitimate source for news. Facebook and twitter factoids, updates, and hashtags are no replacement for journalistic reporting, no matter how attractive a shortcut it may seem. And anyone who tries to tell you otherwise doesn't know what news is.
Like anything important, consuming news takes time and energy, and it should. It can't just be something we expect to absorb or understand through some crazy osmosis, whereby we increase our knowledge by being near others who've read or watched or listened to the news. It takes active presence, not passive acceptance. It requires you to question vigorously and reevaluate constantly.
Following these guidelines and becoming more media literate will help keep our politicians more honest, those with power more accountable, and our world more hopeful. Plus, it will make you look really smart at dinner parties.