I realized after a talk with a friend last night that I haven't said anything lately here about the news, other than posting a few links. So it's time again for Twistedchick's suggestions on how to deal with the media and be informed, in an age when major corporations own so much and tell us so very little.
-- Every news outlet -- newspaper, website, tv network, radio station -- has biases. Every reporter has biases. This does not mean you should trashcan them, because if you know their biases they can be very useful, if only as indications that something is happening and you should look elsewhere for actual facts. Test them. Check the facts in some stories. Are they reported accurately? Are they exaggerated? In what way? Are they misinterpreted? To whose benefit? Who is the winner and who is the loser?
-- There is no one true news source. Ever. There never has been, Walter Cronkite and the evening news or anyone else. The best you can hope for is someone who can honestly give you as much as possible of what is happening, explaining the context, and avoiding adding personal bias to it. Christiane Amanpour does the best I've seen in international coverage, currently, but she's not the only one.
-- All real news is local. It affects real people. It affects you, whether you know it or not, and your relatives and friends and community. What you do not know can affect you more than what you do know.
-- Find a handful or more of news outlets whose biases you are familiar with, who offset each other, who disagree with each other, who cover the same things from different angles. Read them together. See what is left out, and what is covered. What do you want to know more about after reading them? How complete a picture do you have of what is happening?
-- News aggregations sites can help you get a cross-section of coverage of an event. News.google.com is only one of them; there are others. You don't have to be satisfied with whatever is put on the front page; you can search them. I have searched news.google.com for events happening in the little 12,000-circulation weekly newspaper I used to work for, and found them. Just because a site aggregates the biggest stories on the front page does not mean you cannot look for what you want.
-- If you want a full picture of what is happening in your country, read news written outside the country. I did not find out from American news that the Democrats had the LA police chase beachgoers away with mounted patrols before and during the national Democratic Convention out there a few years ago; I saw the video of it on the BBC. It's important to remember that each country's news organizations may report according to different rules than in your own country -- for instance, coverage of trials after a certain point is barred in Britain and Canada and possibly other places as well, while it is allowed here. There are other differences as well. However, take these into account and read widely, and get the view from beyond the ponds of what is happening.
In international news sources, notice what is taken for granted, what is covered, what topics and issues are not covered at all.
-- Check for independent news sources for specific events. I aggregated news on arrests during the Republican National Convention in New York City based on on-the-spot reports over cell phones that were sent to www.indymedia.org.
This is not unbiased, but it is fast and can be more accurate than anything else out there in a breaking story like this.
-- Unnamed sources can be unnamed for many reasons, not just to protect their own jobs and lives. Some organizations (notably government agencies) use unnamed sources in order to leak information unofficially. Some use them to leak information that is not exactly truthful, but slanted in some direction or other, as a smoke screen to hide what is happening. Watch out for the use of descriptive phrases that don't really describe anything. "A source close to the President" could be someone in the West Wing; depending on context, it could also be someone homeless camping out in Lafayette Park, next to the White House. Learning to parse what is said, and who is saying it, is important. In military organizations, the person who responds to the press must do so with the blessing of the higher command, or face disciplinary action, often as not. Can you tell where the unnamed source sits in the hierarchy/structure based on what is said?
-- Check the biases. When different sources and outlets use the same words, do they use them in the same way, with the same understandings? What history is embedded in the way certain issues are reported? What is left to the understanding of the reader? What do you not know that is keeping you from understanding how something is reported.
-- Check your own biases at the door. Check your political correctness. This is about how other people are viewing the world and the issues, not about how you see them. If you want to know what others think, find that out first and take it in and consider it, rather than immediately dissing it because it's not said as you would say it.
-- Put the pieces together. If this, then that. Look for answers. Be informed. Inform others. Pass along what you find that you consider helpful or reliable. We all benefit from being informed.
-- If there is not news coverage about an area, a country, a topic, ask why. Is it because of a power grab? Is it political unrest? Is it a cultural matter? Is there a physical breakdown in the transmission of news -- a natural disaster, power outages, large-scale medical emergencies, roads washed out? Is there civil unrest so dire that it is unsafe for reporters to be present?
-- Accept that you will never have the whole story of anything. You will have, at best, enough to work with, to make decisions on, to pull together into a coherent -- if incomplete -- picture of events so that you can make decisions, support or oppose issues, and live your life as well as possible.
-- Not all news is bad news. Bad news tends to get more coverage because of a bias on the part of editors that bad news is important to more people. But there is good news as well. Learn to look for it. Look at percentages in news -- if there are 20% of people affected badly, it may well mean that 80% are not, and that it used to be 70% and something went right. This is the kind of thing that can be checked.
-- I am not dissing or ignoring blogs -- but blogs tend to be reactive, not active; they are second-day news. Ahh. yes. First-day news is fresh, what has just happened immediately, action and thought and event, with a little context: the Challenger disaster, the Boston Marathon shooters, from international natural disasters to the village council changing the parking zones. It's the newest thing that has occurred. Second-day news is what happened next, referring back to first-day, but including more context, follow-up, more reactions (first-day should have reactions, too). Third-day and after is continuing story coverage -- think of war reporting, where there is a ton of backstory and context but something new has happened on top of it, or more is known about what happened last week. Hurricane Katrina coverage varied between first-day and third-day styles as the hurricane went on, as we learned more about what was going on. But to get back to blogs -- blogs tend to be opinion pieces for or against something that has happened or is about to happen. They are not necessarily only hard news. They are not necessarily only factual reporting, because the blog author often does not have the training or experience to do that kind of writing OR because the author is not in a situation that would allow him or her to be on the scene and doing the work. Blogs are vital and fascinating -- and they will point you in directions you would not otherwise go -- but they are a starting point, not an ending point. Verify, verify, verify.
-- Check charts and graphs whenever you doubt them or are unsure of their use. Look at the detail on charts and graphs -- is that tremendous change in the budget a difference of 10 to 100 or a difference of 10 to 11? Or 10 to 1? Does it read from right to left or left to right? What assumptions are made in the way information is presented?
-- Please do not let yourself be discouraged. The world is a large place, with many viewpoints and cultures affecting and affected by those viewpoints. News will not always make sense, or agree, even when it is completely factual, because we do not ever know everything. But you will have a far better picture of where you are and what is happening than by not trying to understand.
-- When you can't check something online, consult your local librarian. A lot of the sources that used to be freely available are now only available to those who pay for them -- such as Facts on File and the Federal Budget Appendix. Libraries have them, and your librarian can help you find what you want, in a source that is accurate and factual. And if such a source does not exist? That should tell you something, also.
-- On the local level -- if you find that a reporter has done a poor job on something you know about, call the news outlet, ask to speak to the reporter and tell them why you believe they are wrong and what needs to be corrected. This is important, because reporters can only report what they know about and they don't know everything, any time.
-- News outlets I have consulted, including news feeds: New York Times (has several feeds); Washington Post (has swayed to the right horribly in some coverage, but not in other parts of it); McClatchy news service (the remnant of the Knight-Ridder news service, with independent coverage, leaning toward the midwest in focus but interesting); BBC and BBC-America (not exactly the same coverage); San Francisco Chronicle; LA Times; Le Monde; Times of India; Dawn (Pakistan)... there are many others.
If you want to know more, ask me...