March 15th: Distrust of “the Media” Misguided Attempt to Find Truth

“The Media” is under attack, seemingly from all angles. The one thing most Americans can generally agree on is a distrust of the media. But, are we even sure what we mean when we say media?

Media is a general term for the ways in which people communicate to a wide range of audience. What most people mean, though, when they say they distrust the media is the news media, primarily print and TV news, although the internet has certainly complicated things in the past decade and a half.

Texting, when done between two people, is not generally considered media. That is two-way communication. But, as soon as it becomes sent to a wider spectrum of audience, the lines between communication and media becomes far more blurred.

Now, most people can identify the difference between the New York Times and a mass text. Things get more complicated when we enter the world of the internet.

During the most recent election cycle, we saw the rise of “fake news,” which is at the heart of much of the newest wave of distrust for all media producers. While President Trump often accuses CNN or NBC of being fake news, that isn’t generally the origins of the term. A fake news site was meant to indicate a piece of text on the internet that was done in the style of news, meant to “dress up” as a real piece of news, and yet was based in no element of truth. A story with the headline “Donald Trump wears a toupee made from tiger fur” is an example of fake news, in that there is no basis in fact, no screening process, nor an editorial board putting it together. I can’t prove it, but the beauty (and danger) of the internet is that there is nothing to prevent me from saying it anyway.

Yesterday, as his tax returns were revealed on NBC News, Trump tweeted “Does anyone really believe that a reporter, who nobody ever heard of,’went to his mailbox’ and found my tax returns? @NBCNews FAKE NEWS!” This isn’t an example of fake news, though. There is a reporter, who we can verify, who says he received the tax returns in his mailbox. The fact that it is being said IS a fact, and it isn’t wrong for NBC to report on it, as a form of sharing the sources they used to produce their content. Whether or not the information is NEWSWORTHY is a totally other issue. Whether or not it is profound journalism isn’t even the point, either. A better example of political fake news may be the wire tap on Trump Tower. This is an unverifiable claim, with no evidence to back it up, put forward in a way that was meant to be news. 

But the real question at hand in this conversation is the media, and where the boundaries lie in determining where we take out our frustration. Buzzfeed is a perfect example of the kind of website that obscures whether or not it belongs to the amorphous fraternity of “the media”, or whether or not it is a medium of a different kind.

On the whole, Buzzfeed content is a combination of humor, personal interest, and click-bait. Entertaining? Yes. A member of “the media?” Probably not. Sure, there are some articles that attempt to share some version of the truth, but if Buzzfeed is your primary source for deciding how to vote or determining your stance on major policy decisions, you are profoundly misguided. The same issues could be levied against Facebook, where much of the content comes from such a wide spectrum of sources, that it is nearly impossible to determine the credibility or journalistic integrity of the source.

In attempting to keep up with the places where viewers “hang out” virtually, news media have tried to find a home on social media feeds. In so doing, they have put themselves into position to be judged just like anything else you can find on the internet, which has compromised their credibility and our ability to decide what is legitimate news and information, and what is opinion, what is conflated, and what is just downright fake. Not all URLs are created equal, but when we judge them all as having the same validity, it doesn’t come out well for the journalistic community.

It is fair to be very critical of the information we find online, and the way we consume news and data. But, when we are willing to throw away the credibility of anything we consider to be “the media,” we run the risk of destabilizing the world of journalism, a central component of the rights of a free society, and the destabilizing of truth as a whole.

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