I’ve been out of school a long time, so what I have to say now will probably come as a shock to some of you young’uns, but here goes:
Once in elementary school, and again in high school, I had lessons on how to read a newspaper.
Seriously. The teacher pinned a few pages to a bulletin board, and ran down what we needed to know, as little would-be news consumers. The grade-school lesson covered stuff like what we call the big type at the top of the front page, with the newspaper’s name (the flag), how to tell who wrote a particular story, and the difference between a straight news story and a feature, and between a feature and a column.
The high school class got into more specialized skills, including how to judge a story on its merits, the difference between a broadsheet and a tabloid, and a tabloid and a “tabloid.” While this was never stated explicitly, there was a strong bias to what’s come to be called the MSM or mainstream media, in part because there was very little alternative media at the time, the exception being the trashy movie magazines my grandmother favored. I would read them at her house with great relish, goggling over the back-of-the-book ads for Frederick’s of Hollywood and the Mark Eden Bust Developer; it was there I learned that “nervous exhaustion” was a synonym for “drunk,” among other things.
Years later, when I was working for a newspaper, I would get angry calls from readers saying, “This thing you wrote? It’s just your opinion.” And I would explain that yes it was, because I was a columnist and that was the job description. Clearly some of these people did not have the same lessons.
Anyway, that’s the long way around to something I see more often than ever these days, and people, it vexes me: Crap news. Crap news from crap sources. Today’s blog is a lesson in how to read news on the internet.
So. Consider a few headlines:
Every one of these “stories” is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. Each one appeared on a website designed and curated for a particular constituency — in this case, top to bottom, right-to-lifers, organic-food advocates and …Not sure what IfYouOnlyNews.com is about, other than lefty politics and culture. But you knew that, right? Good. That’s the easy part.
Right here is where we talk about the difference between reporting and aggregation. All of the above constitutes aggregation. This blog — most blogs — are aggregation, in the sense that I go out on the web and look at others’ work, then bring it back here and link to it. In my case, I’m looking for two to three stories a day that I think would interest you, presented with and without comment. I think it’s clear that I only write the words around the links, and they’re worth approximately what you paid for them.
Reporting is much harder. It requires getting off your butt (or at least getting on the phone), talking to people, looking stuff up, questioning what you know. Nailing things down. I don’t want to self-aggrandize here, but you get the idea. It’s the difference between going out into the world and bringing home the bacon, and eating the bacon later.
But recent years have seen the rise of aggregation as more Americans’ primary source of news, which is alarming to real journalists. All of the above I found via the social-media accounts of non-insane Americans. The new media model is to Facebook-like or Twitter-follow people who share your basic political outlook or interests, then scroll through your feeds all day and click the stuff that tickles your fancy. It’ll be spun and repackaged to flatter and reinforce your beliefs, which will encourage you to share with your own networks. Viral trumps accuracy, always.
But it’s not just sites with obvious points of view that do this anymore. The Washington Post Morning Mix, which seems to be a rewrite desk aiming to catch the eyes of bored commuters staring at their smartphones, recently had this on their page. I’m giving you a screen grab of how it appeared on a typical Facebook post because I want you get the full effect:
The sobbing woman, the “state of emergency,” lead in a municipal water supply — how can you not click that? And while every word in the story is accurate, the Washington Post wasn’t in Flint to report it; it’s entirely aggregated from stories written by others, and it lacks the context you need to understand what’s going on. The story of the contamination of Flint’s water is complicated, fraught with idiosyncrasies of Michigan politics and other things that make it difficult to fully understand as a casual reader — like plumbing. The state of emergency the mayor declared is a political move, which she freely admits, if you cared enough to follow the links in the story:
The new mayor asked that the Genesee County Board of Commissioners call a special meeting to take action to support her declaration, that it be forwarded to Gov. Rick Snyder, and potentially President Obama.
The end result of the resolution is not known, but Weaver said the city can’t expect further help from the federal government without it.
“Do we meet the criteria (for a disaster area)? I don’t know,” Weaver said. “I’m going to ask and let them tell us no.”
You might think, reading this headline, that the city is still drinking the Flint River water that led to this slow-motion disaster, and they’re not; they switched back to treated water from Detroit weeks ago. That doesn’t mean the crisis is over, not by a long shot — now the fact-finding and blame assignment begins, as well as the inevitable lawsuits. And there is some concern that the Flint River water may have further corroded pipes, and the water may not be as safe as it was before the initial switch. (The lead in the water comes not from the source, but from leaching from the pipes that carry it, specifically the welds. That’s why some kids got more lead exposure than others — the older the infrastructure serving your house, the more likely you were to have lead in your drinking water.)
Another screen grab:
That’s Google on Thursday. Note how many outlets picked it up — NPR, the networks, even other aggregators like the Huffington Post. As of late Thursday, it was still on the top-five most-read list on the Post website. All without a visit by any reporter. It’s really something.
You want to know what’s going on in Flint? Here’s a radio documentary. Here’s a newspaper story (Sunday-length). Here’s a column. All from local sources, backed up by lots of reporting.
So when you look at something that’s being presented to you as journalism, look at the whole picture. Ask yourself: Did the person whose name appears at the top of the story actually get out and talk to the people quoted and cited, or is it filled with phrases like “…told the New York Times,” or “according to this other source,” etc. Is this in a publication that regularly tells me everything I believe is right and true? Most important: If this event happened in Tampa or New Orleans or Los Angeles, is the story I’m reading from a local media source, or is it from an advocacy group based hundreds of miles away? Local is good, and not just for vegetables.
Enough lesson-ing for today. Here’s a great story from Bridge today; you’ll like it. It’s about a homeless college student, and beautifully done.
Here’s another good read, about aggregation, by an aggregator, for a source I see cited ALL THE TIME.
I’ve been giggling over this short clip, which says everything I want to say about “Star Wars.”
Enjoy your weekend! I’m off for a while. But I’ll be here, of course.