Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. […] You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. […]
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate […]
— Michael Crichton, Why Speculate
When did you first notice that the media doesn’t always get it right? Or how difficult it is to find which news sources are the most reliable?
Come on, now. You can’t say that it hasn’t happened to you. Whether about weapons of mass destruction, your favorite conspiracy theory, or clickbait, people are wising up. In fact, since the 1990s, people are now becoming increasingly more aware that the news isn’t solely in the business of reporting facts. (Bizarrely, however, even after their 2016 smackdown, liberals trust the news more, while everyone doesn’t trust it much at all).
But civic leaders and business owners have been asking me the questions from our title a lot lately. This is especially true regarding the most reliable news sources. In fact, in the past few weeks, I’ve gotten 1 email, 1 text, and 2 in-person requests to answer it.
What do I read regularly and what news do I trust? How can we find good information to make the best decisions?
So, pull up a chair, grab a glass of your favorite wine, and let’s take a look at these questions.
For most, there are simply too many mistakes; errors; coincidences; forgotten, additional information; selectively edited videos; clearly made-up nonsense, and so much more.
So, does this represent an increasingly untrustworthy media or simply a public that’s wise to an old game? Or a little bit of both?
Putting the Most Reliable News on the Rack
Take a moment, if you will, and let’s give the idea of the most reliable news sources a metaphor. What do you picture? A set of scales, balancing truth and falsehood on either side? What about a spectrum of light, a scale between statements that are closer in accuracy than others?
Personally, I imagine a medieval torture rack.
Pun intended. But let me explain.
According to respected scholar Scott Atran, up to 40% or more of our news is factually incorrect. Completely, totally, and all the way, false. Surprised? Worst of all, he also suggests that these mistakes are not corrected with time. This fact is also well-documented, even across cultures and many, many decades.
Put another way, you might as well torture someone for information, despite torture being widely seen as ineffective. And that’s because newspapers, like tormented victims on the rack, will say just about anything.
And I mean any-fucking-thing.
This bears repeating, so none of my readers miss it: long before the idea of “fake news” was around, it was already a well-established, well-researched fact that the media has never been a trust-worthy source of information, anywhere in the world.
Liberal, conservative, moderate. It doesn’t matter.
So, in this metaphor, there is no accurate news source any more than there is a reliable torture victim on the torture rack . Reuters, the Associated Press, The New York Times, BBC, TIME magazines, Forbes, Fox News. You name it, and there’s a good chance there’s no reason to take them seriously.
So, what’s the solution?
- Find the God Damn Original Source
Never before in human history have you had more knowledge at your fingertips like you do with the internet. It has never been more trivially easy to find unedited videos of events, raw data collected from multiple official places, or info on… almost everything. Find it, watch it, digest it for yourself.
- Steel Yourself Against Emotional Claims
An enormous part of the news, at least in the 2020s, has become little more than concern trolling. Even when they’re not selectively advocating for a certain course of action, most sources, even the most neutral, present facts in ways that over-emotionally frame the issues rather than present solid evidence or data to show a point.
- Stop Arguing with People Stuck in 2000
When I discover someone watches or reads only major news sources for their information, I usually put them in a category. That category is: likely doesn’t have anything of substance to add to real-world conversations. Would it shock you to learn that 75% of people feel better informed with the internet; yet, only 20% of them ever read beyond the major headlines?
Removing these people from your conversations is a good starting point to focus on sifting through the mess of modern journalism, rather than arguing with gullible people.
- Assume the Official Story Is Not What Happened
As empires and nations decline, officials and experts are ever more inclined to parrot whatever benefits them and keeps the status quo going. In many cases, you’ll find the very opposite of what they’re saying is true. A great example is the Federal Reserve’s decade long fearmongering that inflation is just around the corner despite catastrophic deflationary events.
- Learn Some Basic Data Analysis Tricks
Data analysis can be a fun thing. Seriously! And a few simple tricks can go a long way. They won’t make you an authority on data mixing, but they can help you spot bullshit. Take for example the media’s current obsession with cumulative cases and deaths for Covid-19. Notice anything? These charts will never come down by design and will provide a scary picture forever. A different comparison? You’ll find a completely different picture.
- Wait Until More Information is Available
Although this one should be kept in context for our later strategy on relevancy, it never hurts to admit we don’t know what to make of some piece of news yet. And to wait for more before coming to a conclusion. You might still not have the entire picture but additional and often, better information can be gleaned with time.
- Accept that You Live in an Information Desert
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Even as we have all this information at our fingertips, the increase in noise makes it more difficult to find the signal. In a sense, today, we live in a desert, unsure where our next piece of accurate information will come from. Keeping this in mind will always keep you humble in the face of final observations.
Sources, Sources, and Sources
“Do you have a source for that?”
If you’ve never come across this question, you’re lucky. Common on Reddit, it’s a snarky way dilettantes try to shut down conversation. By focusing on whether there’s a source for a piece of information or an idea (as if an idea needs a source to actually be debated), they’re able to suggest to audiences that their opponent isn’t someone to take seriously. And so, make their enemy’s conclusions seem unreliable.
In an age where you can find someone’s source of information at the touch of a button, it is an incredibly stupid thing to ask.
But what’s surprising is that, while some people believe news organizations collude, the reality is that only a few sources are responsible for all the news in the entire world. That’s right, much of what you read is just rehashed, often unverified, trash.
Add in the fact that only a few corporations own 90% of the media, and you have a simple conclusion… there are no diversity of news sources. And it doesn’t matter how many sources you use to try to authenticate your information. Can you believe that we’re nearly flying blind these days?
And people wonder why I’m so jaded about our ability to affect meaningful change.
Of course, once upon a time, it was a cute saying among high school teachers to tell you to check multiple, reliable sources. But who, among even intellectuals, has energy for such a thing today?
Doing so is a waste of time and effort, especially for regular people trying to get by day-to-day and for the savvy leaders of the world.
So, if reading from multiple sources doesn’t help, what are we to do?
- Go for Speed and Relevancy, Not Accuracy
As a news junkie, I would hands-down take a source that publishes numerous times a day and prides itself on getting the raw info out before anyone else. Why? Because, since we’ve established that all news is at least half wrong, it’s better to be on the cutting-edge and to begin digesting the world’s happenings in real time.
Luckily, the power of the internet has given us this possibility. I don’t care if it comes from someone’s crappy blog or social media account, is it highly relevant for today? It gets big points, because the truth will probably shake out in the end.
- Trace the Trends Across Media Types
If media is so constrained in its sources, you can probably guess that some major trends are completely fabricated. And if you’ve never heard of native advertising, where the point of entire news articles is to promote a brand or product, you may be in for a shock. This is why it’s less important how many sources you have, and more important for you to be able to analyze real trends in media types vs manufactured ones, from organic tweets to press releases to comments on articles, and more.
- Identify Sources that Aggregate Information for Analysis
I call these meta-news sources. Those bold writers who are willing to shift through the slush and comment on it can be invaluable. Ones known for tackling the landscape with focus on speed, relevancy, and tracing trends across many media types can be particularly informative. This is definitely true for ones willing to present tentative analysis of what they find.
- Follow Up on Changing “Facts”
Although individual news sources are terrible at fixing errors with time, you do still have options. One such example that I use often is to follow up with court documents and case law. At least, in this process, you can glean much more information as better information comes to light and its impact on every-day living is revealed.
- Pay Special Attention to What’s Canceled
Blackouts, historic revisions, cancel culture. What the monolith of a media industry decides to purge or outright ignore can be very instructive. What questions do they refuse to allow? What thinkers are blackballed and why? Court the controversial and blacked out for new avenues of thinking.
- The Conflict of the Elite is Revealing
As empires wane, a burgeoning elite and wanna-be elite class can produce plenty of infighting. And more than its fair share of glitterati who provide new information, sometimes highly relevant, in their anger at their own class. Edward Snowden, as part of the professional and managerial class, is such an example.
- Learn and Remember Who Knows Who (and Who Funds Them)
Journalism and media, like any industry, are increasingly small worlds. Would it surprise you to learn that ultra-liberal Google funds seemingly conservative think tanks and nonprofits? And what about those regular guests on your favorite news program, how did they get on there all the time? How do some writers seem to have no problems getting articles in multiple sources, but others can’t break free from independent media? This doesn’t invalidate their information but it can help put things in context.
- Crowdsource with Friends and Family
Although you might not imagine it, your friends and family can be a powerful source of news and information. If you’re being ruthless about who you spend your time with, you’ll find that others already use the strategies I’ve outlined above. And when you come together, you can stay dialed in and up-to-speed on what’s really happening in the world.
The Inquisitor’s Interrogative Methods
Let’s return to our torture chamber metaphor for a moment.
With a well-chosen set of methods and instruments, if you will, you can exact what you need when it comes to the news industry. Or put another way: you can put yourself in the drivers seat.
For me, well, I’m simply curious about… well, anything. And this is something I’ve nurtured for several decades. But like most people, I have a finite amount of time to consume info. And I say this as someone who makes it his business to consume info.
Then how do I keep up so well with all the news across the world?
My daily news system looks something like this, and its way more simple than you might have guessed…
- Download an RSS Reader and an Article Saver
With a dedicated RSS reader and a service to save articles for later, you can create a centralized place where you get your news. Instead of a source or two, you can mix and match 100s or even 1000s of sources of all types.
- Subscribe, Subscribe, Subscribe
Forums, video series, major news sources, minor news sources. You name it, and I probably subscribe to one with my reader. I prefer a diverse mix of sophistication and straightforward vs fast and easy-to-consume. But if it has accompanying data or documents and a willingness to explore difficult questions in a pragmatic way, I’m probably going to read it.
- Continually Organize and Assess Your Feeds
Now, I do have some long-standing preferences for certain media sources. Two such examples are the Supreme Court blog (for its willingness to take on the subject) and Nate Silver’s 538 (for its hilarious daftness). Otherwise, I am constantly adding, subtracting, categorizing, and tagging my feeds and articles.
- Give Yourself Dedicated Time to Consume News
My mornings are usually first spent catching up on any overnight or very early morning financial data and international events. By giving myself a dedicated time, I ensure that I’m kept up-to-date on what’s going on each day. Then at night, I tend to read longer form works that help me piece together bigger trends.
- Seek Out Robust Conversations
Because I place a value on reasonable, intelligent, and creative thinkers, many of my conversations throughout the week help me pick apart what’s going on. This is true of local, national, and international news. I’m upfront with the people I regularly converse with about how I prefer they challenge my ideas and beliefs. They’re encouraged to bring new information to light with me, to ask questions, and to express contrary thinking.
- Make It About the Ideas Not About Followers
Now, I don’t typically share my specific news sources for the simple fact that more than half the time, it then becomes a conversation about what type of person usually reads that source. Dull people can’t get over the fact that I might read extremely controversial writers on both sides of an issue. Or that I also read things like super-dry academic papers, random twitterati, and whatever else I can find, mainstream or not. Because, at least for me, it’s about applying real ideas to the real world.
The News is Dead, Long Live the News
So, let’s recap.
Most people, including our leaders, aren’t reading the news beyond the headlines. And even when they do, there is a serious likelihood that what they’re reading isn’t true. And best of all, it probably all came from the same place anyway.
And in 2020s America, just believing whatever you read in the news is sort of like being tortured to death.
Long live the news!