It takes a lot of critical thinking to consume news.
It used to be that you read your news in just a daily paper or you listened to it on the radio or television. Each day it would be delivered by people you’d come to know and trust.
In the digital age, we consume our news so much differently. I started my journalism career in TV and can’t tell you the last time I sat down at 6pm to watch the news, simply because I can keep up with it all day. I get most of my news from twitter via verified outlets like Global News, Associated Press, etc.
Even still, I probably consume my news differently than most people, simply because of my background in news writing and producing. I have a tendency to gloss over articles that masquerade as news and go straight to reputable sources. I don’t fall for clickbait. I tend to go where I know I would get my information from if I had to write a newscast on the fly.
I sound like an old person writing a letter to the editor here (if you’re under 25, ask your mom or dad), but I can see that the digital news age is failing the consumer and because of this, we have the influx of what will surely be the biggest buzzword of 2017: Fake News
Maclean’s published an incredible piece about consuming nothing but a week’s worth of Fake News. You can find it here. It explains the phenomenon better than I ever could.
To me, there are two reasons Fake News thrives. The first is thanks to the advent of listicles. “10 Reasons Why Michelle Obama is So Hot RN”, “Five Signs Your Sandwich Choice Makes You Racist” etc. We let Buzzfeed and Elephant Journal make legions of internet-savvy news consumers into braindead idiots. The term “TL;DR” would not exist were it not for the listicle. Why sit down and consume ANY article, when it could be broken down into bulleted points with no room for extrapolation?
So while Buzzfeed was enriching our cultural landscape by helping us figure out which Spice Girl we are, something else happened (or I guess, continued to happen). As discussed at length on this blog, media conglomerates gutted their news and sports departments. Seasoned journalists were left unemployed, and all that remained were the people who would work for the least amount of money and benefits possible; the recent-ish college grads.
I was that college grad at one point, ok? Lousy paying news jobs aren’t new. I was 20 in 2002 when I got my first job and I had to learn from vets who didn’t have much more experience than me. We were all learning together, really. But when I was a completely green and poorly paid recent-ish college grad, there were still 10 reporters, four producers and like, eight other writers you could at least check your bullshit detector with.
Now newsrooms are run on skeleton crews. You might literally be the only person in your newsroom for six hours a day. Every lead, every tip, every wire story comes through you and you alone. But hey no pressure, and in the words of one of my favourite bosses, “don’t fuck it up!”
So we’ve lost our seasoned journalistic veterans because of budget woes. The journalists that are left are either woefully under-experienced or are in charge of the woefully under-experienced. AND ALSO – because Elephant Journal and Buzzfeed had solidified their place in the modern small j journalism landscape, the powers that be in newsrooms around the country have figured out hey, if we can’t beat em, join em!
Now, journalists aren’t given until the top of the hour, until print deadline, or until 5:59pm to work on their stories because in the digital age, we need to get the story to the consumers ASAP. We need to tweet it as we know it (often without or with very limited confirmation/vetting). It’s more important to get those listicle-like points out there via social media updates; we can flush out the details later.
So we’ve put real journalism in competition with nonsense. The average news consumer probably either can’t tell or isn’t concerned with the difference or quality of the news they read, watch, etc. The don’t bother to figure out the difference between news and editorial, they just take it in and do with it what they will. Click-bait headlines abound in hopes of getting those eyes and clicks, baby.
Slowly, the click-bait headlines become more and more out there, the quality of the writing, the fact checking, suffers.
And now, we have fake news.
When you are used to reading nothing but bat-shit crazy headlines, is there any wonder that something about a pizza restaurant being used for a pedophilia ring could grow legs and run through the collective conscious of the internet? Or that it would be so easy to convince people Hillary Clinton has ordered the killing of five people or something?
Critical thinking is not something many possess and it’s hard to teach. Few of us possess strong critical thinking skills, so you can imagine what the average Facebook user will take at face value.
I don’t want to link to fake news because I can’t really stand to. I think if you are reading this and you want to find it, you will. The Maclean’s article at the top will put you on the path.
How do we stop fake news? Can we, even?
The above Maclean’s article is a good start. There have been more than a few news outlets that have come out with great think pieces on the subject, and that’s just ducky.
But Fake News is probably here to stay because Real News has been gutted and stripped for parts. You don’t have the experienced journalists in the newsroom anymore because they became to costly to employ. They are unemployed; the collateral damage of the need for major media outlets to make sure the shareholders are happy.
I’m a firm believer that pendulums are only supposed to swing so far in any direction before they swing back. Maybe we have gutted journalism so far that the only thing left to do is build it back up.
And believe me, the only way to fight Fake News is to rebuild Real News. It’s time to start hiring more reporters, writers, producers, and flesh out the skeleton crews. If media conglomerates want to be taken seriously, they have no choice. You are going to need the well trained eyes to spot Fake News and ensure it doesn’t infiltrate Real News.
The media conglomerates won’t even consider this if we, the consumers, don’t go pack to paying for our news. The internet has given us so much for free, and even I can admit to balking at paying for news that had been so widely distributed. The same internet conglomerates have adjusted their whole business models around is that same one that has destroyed their ad revenue and caused the widespread layoffs to appease shareholders.
If we expect more, we have to support the system that will give us more. We can do this by not only literally buying into Real News, but by actively shunning not only Fake News, but the click-bait listicle sites too.
Also, if you are a current, retired, unemployed or otherwise reformed journalist, you definitely need to make noise when you see people spreading the Fake News. Call the story out. Call the poster out. Help people understand how to understand what’s real and what’s fake.
Journalism in all its forms is a product and we’ve cheapened it by devaluing it. We’ve made the writers, the storytellers and the editors expendable, we’ve created a new minimum wage industry, simply by agreeing to the working conditions in order to maintain employment, and by giving away a product for free and subsequently begging people to pay for it in the end. If you want to give journalism a fighting chance against Fake News, let’s try realizing the worth and help others to see it too.