Who Can We Trust?

This video has nothing to do with politics, but the title matches my thesis, and as a comedy soundtrack it keeps things light. :-)

It’s only natural that human beings start life with a set of beliefs and values passed along by their parents. And as we grow up and those beliefs begin to conflict with other people’s views, it’s easy to either cling to our own and deny everyone else’s, or to toss up our hands and exclaim, “Who knows what’s really true?”

Often, politicians rely on this. Intent on gaining office, they either shade the truth, distract from it like hand-waving magicians, or bury it in a landslide of half-truths and outright falsehoods.

Facing that, it’s tempting to throw our hands in the air, call them all liars, and walk away. However, our founders expected that we would at least try to sort out the mess and make the most informed political decisions we can. For that, we need the media. Our founders figured we’d take responsibility to navigate it and gauge its value.

Our founders expected that we would at least try to sort out the mess and make the most informed political decisions we can.

In recent years, some politicians have made a special point to undermine even that. Probably most prominent (and most effective and influential) have been Sarah Palin with her “lamestream media” slogan and Donald Trump with his “false news” tag. I’m not broadly accusing any entire party, just those two individuals.

I think it’s obvious that someone who dismisses all unfavorable news as “unfair and biased” is using that hand-waving magician trick to dismiss their own sins.

So how can we evaluate media reports? Here’s my own set of guidelines:

  • Does it agree with what I already believe? Be suspicious of my own bias.
  • Is it an opinion page? Not worth my time.
  • Is it group discussion (i.e. a talk show)? Not worth my time.
  • Is it from a news source I’ve never heard of? Visit the site to see if other articles there show a clear bias.
  • Are its photos clearly unflattering of the subject? (Trump gloating, Obama slumping, etc.) Don’t trust it.
  • Does it use judgmental descriptive terms? (“Today X made the despicable decision to do Y.”) Don’t trust it.
  • Does it use suspicious graphics?* Don’t trust it.
  • Is it a news source with a long history of journalism? Weigh its story against others from respected sources and average it all out to make a reasoned opinion. (Examples: Christian Science Monitor, C-SPAN, The Economist, USA Today.)

*I feel obligated to share an example of a source I no longer trust, because of it’s abuse of graphics. Below are a reconstruction of the TV version, followed by same information as any competent schoolchild would have graphed it. By starting the numbering at 100, the top chart suggests that O’Bannon’s spending is 10 times Shrubb’s spending. The actuality is that they’re very close in spending, as the bottom shows. Notice also the use of colors. In graphic design terms, red suggests danger, blue trustworthiness, and green serenity.

That top graph is based on a TV broadcast I saw on Fox News, while traveling for business.

And yes, using the phrase “Any Competent Schoolchild” is a “judgmental descriptive term.” In my defense, (1) I held my ire until a footnote; (2) this is a personal blog, not a news report; and (3) it serves as an example of a loaded phrase. (Gotcha!) In any case, the graph comparisons remain valid.

Leave a Reply