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Published October 6, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

Social media posts vs. news media

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Only one-third of Americans trust traditional national news sources, according to Pew research.

And according to Gallup, 75 percent of Americans believe the information they receive from friends’ social media posts is as reliable as that from traditional news organizations despite the fact that, unlike traditional news media, there are few regulations governing social media.

As a retired journalist who spent almost half a century working for newspapers that tried to present news in a fair way, I find these numbers disheartening.

I am worried many Americans now see traditional news sources as old news and instead are turning to dark places on the Internet for information. Facts get ignored; conspiracy theories take root.

Things have only gotten worse since I wrote a column more than a year ago venting about the amount of information being directed our way.

Russia, according to our intelligence agencies and the FBI, is still meddling. Facebook and Twitter are still struggling to reduce fake content. And now technology wizards have perfected deepfakes, or fake videos or audio recordings that look and sound like the real thing.

In that column last year, I offered some tips on how to become better consumers of news.

As this presidential election year enters the homestretch, here are my updated tips:

USE MULTIPLE SOURCES: Shocking events are always reported by multiple sources. Be suspicious of “bombshell” news that is limited to a single source.

VALIDATE CONTENT: Fact-checking sites such as FactCheck, Snopes and Politifact can help you spot fake news.

BIAS BY OMISSION: For every news story that is selected, there are others that are left out. Do the stories you see reflect a balanced view of real life?

BIAS BY REPETITION: The repetition of a particular event or idea can lead people to believe that it is true and more widespread than it actually is.

FUDGING THE NUMBERS: Statistics need to be interpreted. They can create false impressions. Covering the same survey, one reporter may write that 30 percent support the death penalty while another may write that 70 percent are against the death penalty.

BOTH SIDES: Issues become controversial because there are at least two sides. Stories should include the different viewpoints. Subjects of stories deserve a chance to respond whether they are private citizens or public officials.

WATCH THOSE HEADLINES: Headlines most often are written by someone other than the reporter and are written to entice readers into the story. Make sure they accurately reflect the story. Online sites are notorious for going overboard because they need the clicks.

ANONYMOUS SOURCES: Granting anonymity isn’t bad as long as the news source follows its rules. The New York Times, for example, requires anonymous sources be used only for information it thinks is newsworthy, credible and can’t be reported in any other way. The story will usually offer a hint as to why the source is anonymous.

LOADED WORDS: One word can get even the best reporter in trouble. After all, one reporter’s terrorist may be another reporter’s freedom fighter. Adjectives are particularly dangerous. Buzz words like left-wing and right-wing or liberal and conservative are often used carelessly.

OUR MISTAKE: Every news source makes errors. Correcting them in a noticeable and consistent manner is important.

NEWS OR OPINION: Most newspapers do a good job labeling a story opinion, analysis, or commentary. Social media, not so much.
PHOTO BIAS: Unflattering pictures can create bad impressions, and partial pictures of scenes can completely change the context of an event.

KNOW YOURSELF: Few of us are able to maintain a truly impartial view of current issues. We all have personal prejudices. Knowing your self-interests and how they affect your judgment is key to evaluating information and making rational decisions. Readers bring as many biases to a story as a reporter does. Reporters, however, are trained to overcome them. But I am biased.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)