Professional journalism can save us from ourselves

Published on Winchester Sun, September 26, 2019

When the Internet started to take off with the general public in the early 2000s, most observers foresaw the dawning of an age of unlimited information. Unfortunately, few saw the downside to this incredible access to platforms of creating and consuming news and knowledge.

Today we find ourselves in a world so flooded with information that it is, to say the least, overwhelming for most of us. Like the old saying about drinking from a water hose, it is impossible to take it all in.

Another problem relates to the quality of the information. Most of us agree that democratizing the creation and distribution of knowledge is a good thing. But the dark side of that effect is that the quality has gone down dramatically.

Much of what we see on the Internet is unfounded, unverified or utterly false. Internet news sites and bloggers rush to publish leaks and rumors as fact. Worse, many sites intentionally publish patently false information.

Content creators and curators have made it possible for consumers of information to silo themselves into various corners of the online world. We restrict our incoming feeds to only those things that interest us — or more troubling — only those things with which we agree.

This effect began a decade or more before the explosion of the Internet with cable news. What started as an effort to bring news on demand to the public soon morphed into a multi-headed monster where stories were rushed to the air before all the facts were in and where even the most trivial of news was heralded as “breaking.”

The situation devolved into multiple news networks vying for audience share by splitting into ideological camps. One can now get whatever slant on the news they prefer.

But as bad as the cable news landscape is, social media is even worse. Many of us rely on it not just to keep up with friends and family, but as a legitimate news source. This is dangerous to the health of our democracy and society in general.

Amid this tableau, real journalism in all its forms has struggled. Newspaper readership is down. Broadcast network news, once the vanguard of electronic media, is in big trouble as it rides the decline of network television.

The strength of real journalism is also its Achilles Heel. Respectable news outlets do not publish stories without multiple independent sources. They hold onto breaking news until facts can be reasonably ascertained. They vet sources to ensure with reasonable certainty that the information gleaned from them is accurate.

All of this takes time. Meanwhile, less reputable sources (fake journalists) are tripping over one another to get the scoop out. Sometimes they get it right. Often they do not, to the great detriment of us all.

If, like me, you are concerned about the current state of affairs, I have a few suggestions.

First, do not rely on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for your primary news. The purpose of these tweaked news feeds is not to inform you but to keep you engaged with their product. And they have learned that a powerful way to do this is to appeal to your existing prejudices.

Second, stay away from cable news as much as possible. All cable news is biased to a certain extent — some much more so than others. And cable news companies are forced by the economics of a 24-hour on-demand operation into distorting the importance of the news. Again, you get a very inaccurate picture of reality.

Finally, actively seek out sources of actual news. For me, this means newspapers and radio stations run by trained, professional journalists. My go-to news organizations include NPR, KET, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the (Lexington) Herald-Leader, and of course the Winchester Sun.

None of these media are perfect. But they all are close to the political center in their news reporting, though they may lean left or right on their editorial pages. And they all hew to the standards of professional journalism. You can place a high degree of trust in what they print or broadcast.

One last note. If you find value in these and other true journalistic outlets, please join me in subscribing to them or financially supporting them in some way. These media can only survive and continue to deliver on their promise of keeping us better informed if we sustain them

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Twitter @PeteKoutoulas.

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