Summary Statistics

Well, as of now, I’ve finished reading a total of three books on journalism and the news in general. I feel more informed than I was before, but mostly, I feel less naive.

I think many of us, myself included, have a tendency to assume the news is accurate as long as it presents a picture of the world that we generally agree with. However, the truth is that the world has a way of not fitting in neatly with our ideologies. This becomes a problem, as the internet exacerbates people’s natural tendency toward confirmation bias, and gives us the technical means to hide in our own filter bubbles. There was a time when I felt content to let an algorithm “aggregate” my news for me, but, since then, I’ve come to stop trusting those. The problem, I think, is that these systems are almost too accurate for their own good. After all, being informed only by what you want to hear is nearly as bad as being misinformed.

If anything, reading Chomsky’s work has further shaken any remaining faith I had in the media’s ability to inform accurately. Of course, Chomsky’s brand of socialist-libertarianism is perhaps more of an extreme response to this phenomenon than most of us can stomach, however, even if your views don’t completely overlap with his, it’s hard to deny the cold logic of his theory. The extent to which this actually plays out in the world media today is debatable, but clearly there’s at least the potential for it to happen, and reasonable evidence that it’s happened before.

To that end, I’ve been led to question even the possibility of having a media ecosystem free from Chomskyan failures, because good journalism always requires resources which have to come from somewhere, and where they come from is always going to impose filters. That’s not to say that we can’t vary things within the model in order to possibly do better; public media, after all, weakens the corporate filter in exchange for possibly strengthening the government one. Really, I think the best that we’ve done so far are entities such as NPR, which still manage to reach a large audience while remaining listener-supported. However, it’s clear that such organizations are relatively minor players in the global media system, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

In effect then, we have to live with the fact that the news informs our perception of the world, and the news may itself be colored. Learning about how the media works is like learning that you can’t trust your eyeballs: Sure, the general facts about what you see are probably correct, but the context in which you’re being shown it, and even what you aren’t being shown, could be just as important. Studying the media highlights the impossibility of escaping from our Chomskyan Plato’s Cave.

Fundamentally, then, the news media embodies a paradox, as it is so deeply flawed, and yet so essential to democracy. Compounding the issue, it’s not yet clear what transformations the news media will undergo as the digital age rushes onward. The only weapon we have is our own standards of what “journalism” means: what procedures are required, what decisions need to be made, and who should make them. To that end, I think that, in an ideal democracy, especially a networked one, each citizen would be required to have a working knowledge of what constitutes good journalism, and how to spot the bad kind.

I offer no clear solution to these problems, and no expectation that there even is a solution. My thought is that we can do some good at least by making people aware, so that they are equipt to think critically about where they get their information. If you ask me, this is the single most important skill for which the educational system is lacking.

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