Have you heard the news about the latest Elvis sighting? Seen the headline about the alien invasion? Those are extreme examples, but they remind us that, not so long ago, the difference between legitimate news and tabloid trash was easy to spot. Today, as traditional media models contract and alternative ?news? sources flourish, readers must increasingly turn reporter, sifting fact from fiction in the new information landscape.
That’s not to say traditional news outlets exist in a Norman Rockwell glow. Journalists and media owners have a long history of spinning the ?facts.? As Britannica Online reminds us, ?the earliest newspapers and journals were generally violently partisan in politics.? In the early days especially, balanced reporting often meant smearing the opposition and promoting the chosen party’s agenda.
Still, most professional journalists work hard to remain impartial, to investigate the facts and inform the public. Developing that critical thinking and healthy skepticism takes years of training and front line experience. So how can the average reader hope to wade through the overwhelming flow of half-facts and hidden agendas of the information age?
Authors Tim Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach have some answers in their new book, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload. In a recent interview with NPR, Rosenstiel notes that when it comes to separating fact from bias, ?the audience is essentially left to often judge for itself.?
And when we’re bombarded by a relentless stream of information, it means constantly evaluating the merit of everything: from Twitter posts to blogs to RSS feeds of major news sites and citizen journalists alike. Rosenstiel suggests that the first question critical readers should ask themselves is ?Where am I? Am I listening to a propagandist? Is this a news show? Is it an opinion show??
Besides our individual need to stay informed, there’s an even broader issue at stake. The Internet has provided a platform for billions of voices, freeing readers and writers alike from the constraints of traditional gatekeepers. Yet eliminating those filters hasn’t done away with the need for them, for the ability to find, and support, reputable sources. If audiences themselves don’t collectively take on that role, if they simply drive traffic and readership to the most sensational though unverified sites, then we’re not much better off than the days when we had no choice at all.
It might seem like a daunting task if You’re used to skimming headlines and absorbing information without questioning it. But the alternative is to form opinions about world events?from local politics to revolutions halfway around the world?in a strange sort of vacuum. One That’s full of information, yet at the same time completely empty of meaning.