Make friends with good news sources

Published 8:26 am Saturday, March 25, 2017

Who do you trust? You probably trust family members and friends you’ve known a long time. And you probably trust them even if you disagree with them on many things.

You don’t trust strangers you just met, nor should you.

It’s not surprising, then, that people don’t trust news stories from websites they’ve never heard of before or that they don’t read regularly.

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What’s problematic, however, is a false equivalency reaction to news from “strangers” — that “because there are many unknown media outlets, none of them can be trusted.”

This is a sentiment that’s growing in popularity. I’ve seen it all over the Internet and heard it in many conversations in recent months.

This false equivalency is like saying that because there are so many strangers in the world, not even your friends and family can be trusted. It also suggests that the only kind of trust out there is blind trust.

Instead, we ought to develop relationships with media outlets that we trust. We should find a handful of news sources and read from them regularly, so that we get to know them. Ideally, they should be sources with which we don’t always agree, but which are always accurate and honest.

Public distrust of the media is soaring. A lot of that is because propaganda and biased news sources are creating massive amounts of noise and spin.

Many powerful people want precisely this. They want the public to throw up their hands and say, “we give up, we don’t want any of this news anymore.” At that point, those with power can act however they want without repercussions, because the public will have no way of knowing what’s going on.

But there are, for now, still plenty of good news sources out there, and they’re not actually hard to find.

The key is to develop real trust — not blind trust — with good news sources. We develop that trust by getting to know them as friends.

Read beyond headlines

When was the last time you felt truly informed by a headline? Hopefully, your answer is “never.”

Headlines should not inform us — they exist to set the stage so we know what we’re about to read.

The real information is, obviously, in the story itself. Too often, we read the headlines and move on, not realizing how harmful that is to our understanding of the world around us.

When we only read headlines, a few things happen. First, we’re allowing our biases and preconceived notions to dictate our understanding of the news. When you see a headline that sounds “good” for what you believe, you nod your head and feel vindicated. When you see a headline that sounds “bad” for what you believe, you dismiss it as biased and move on.

Had you instead read those stories, you may have found that the story that sounded “good” wasn’t all that good after all, or that the story that sounded “bad” actually has valuable information that challenged your falsely held beliefs.

Second, reading just the headlines means we can be easily tricked. Websites that proudly lean in one political direction or another constantly produce headlines that focus on something other than the real news or even that editorialize on the content of the story. Propaganda websites just outright lie in their headlines.

Both of these problems are easily caught if you read the stories. If the claims made in a headline are not backed up with more detailed information and sourcing in the first few paragraphs of a story, that’s a red flag that you may be encountering biased or propaganda headlines.

When a news source repeatedly creates misleading or sensationalistic headlines, it’s probably a good time to drop them from your diet.

If you’re reading reliable sources of news, the headlines will accurately reflect a general idea of the story. But you should still read the story anyway, because that’s where the actual information is.

Value corrections

When a media outlet issues a correction, they are participating in one of the most important aspects of journalism. Corrections show that journalists are trying to inform their readers accurately and being honest about when they come up short.

News sources that never issue corrections are not news sources — they are propaganda. Everyone gets something wrong at some point, so corrections are inevitable. The only way a news organization never issues a correction is if it never admits it was wrong.

We should not be consuming our news from sources that believe they are infallible, or that are so insecure about what they do that they’re unwilling to admit an error publicly.

Such behavior by less-than-reputable news sources is partly to blame for the public’s distrust of media. We shouldn’t “blame the victim” here — it’s not our fault that some media outlets are shady players.

But given that we know this to be the case, if we want to consume trustworthy, useful news, we have to watch out for sources that are “never wrong” and dump them right away.

Accept the challenge

Good news sources should challenge our mistaken beliefs and better inform our correctly held beliefs. We all have some wrong beliefs, we just aren’t aware that they’re wrong until it’s revealed to us. The only way we uncover our wrongly held beliefs is through new information.

When you always agree with stories from a certain news source, you should worry. If the lead headline or story every day is something that affirms you’re right and “they’re wrong,” that’s a huge red flag. Such news sources are untrustworthy and shouldn’t be listened to or read.

A good media outlet provides accurate information whether or not it fits preconceived notions. As a result, when you read news from that outlet, the new information you gain should sometimes expand your understanding of something you already believe, and sometimes be at odds with what you thought was right.

If you’ve found a trustworthy news source and it produces a story that makes you uncomfortable or is at odds with your beliefs, that can be a good sign. It means you may have found new information that will allow you correct a wrongly held belief.