|Number 589||November 23, 2015|
This week I offer an answer to a question I am often asked, which comes in various forms but always sounds something like, "How do I find a news source that I can trust to tell me the truth?" The sad part of the answer is: There is no such source. The happy part of the answer is, there are things you can do to improve the odds that you are getting good information from your news sources.
I've actually addressed this question—directly and indirectly—approximately 4,812 times over the years, via print media, radio, television, and online. But for those who are relatively new to Nygaard Notes, I'm including in this issue summaries of a few points that I think are important to understand before trying to understand Media Propaganda Self-Defense Concrete Tip #6, which simply says: DON'T TRUST ANY NEWS SOURCE.
That includes Nygaard Notes, of course. If you find it hard to agree with what you read here, send me a note and tell me where I wandered into questionable territory. I like getting mail, and I like being challenged. Readers teach me a lot. Will you be my teacher?
The Times points out that this data "provides a rare look into the cloistered world of internal police discipline." That comment was followed by these two paragraphs, which are hereby christened "Quote" of the Week for Nygaard Notes #589:
"For example, the data for 2015 shows that in more than 99 percent of the thousands of misconduct complaints against Chicago police officers, there has been no discipline. From 2011 to 2015, 97 percent of more than 28,500 citizen complaints resulted in no officer being punished, according to the files.
"Although very few officers were disciplined in the years covered by the data, African-American officers were punished at twice the rate of their white colleagues for the same offenses, the data shows. And although black civilians filed a majority of the complaints, white civilians were far more likely to have their complaints upheld, according to the records."
Similar stories could be written about any number of cities, including my own city of Minneapolis, where 962 complaints were submitted to our "civilian" police review authority from 2012 to 2015, and disciplinary actions were subsequently taken in exactly ONE case. (Data courtesy of Communities United Against Police Brutality.)
Although this important story was relegated to page 19 in the nation's most influential newspaper, it likely wouldn't have appeared at all if Black Lives Matter hadn't been doing so much work in recent months to raise the visibility of this ongoing horror.
People often ask me which news sources I "trust." If by "trust" they mean sources whose reporting I assume to be true, there is no such source. What? you say. Isn't this hopelessly cynical? Nobody can be trusted? I don't think it's cynical, exactly, but it does pose a dilemma: If we don't trust any sources, then it might seem like it's almost impossible to get reliable information from any public news source. That's not the case, however. Here are some points to keep in mind when seeking reliable information in a mostly-unreliable media environment.
POINT ONE: JOURNALISTS ARE SURROGATES FOR YOU AND ME. Back in Nygaard Notes #199 (April 4, 2003), I wrote, "Journalists are surrogates for the rest of us, since they go all kinds of places most of us can't go, and ask questions on our behalf. So, for me, it's important to find sources that tend to ask the sorts of questions that I would ask if I were in their spot."
In fact, journalists do ask questions on somebody's behalf, but not necessarily "ours." Here we need to consider the social role of the journalist. That is, if we were designing a society that we hoped would be democratic, we would want to have something called "journalism" that would be in the spirit of the following definition of the term, which I take from the American Press Institute: "The purpose of journalism is ... to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments." What we would not have is a system in which information is supplied for the purpose of drawing the attention of the desired audience to the ads of sponsors. That's the essence of what we call journalism under capitalism, which never ceases to amaze me.
One technique to use in finding a good surrogate for oneself is to harken back to Concrete Tip #3, which asks us to Formulate Our Own Questions Before Looking at the News Media. If we do that, then we can tell very easily when looking at a news article, or a study, or any presentation, whether the author asked any of the questions to which we want answers. If he did, then he's a good surrogate for us. I suggest that the best surrogates will be found outside of the daily news stream. But not always. (I illustrate this idea of "journalist as surrogate" in the other feature article in this week's Nygaard Notes.)
POINT TWO: HOW DOES A NEWS SOURCE REPORT ON ISSUES WITH WHICH YOU ARE FAMILIAR? A little homework is involved at this point. Here's the assignment: First you select a subject about which you are well-informed. (If you've done a case study on a subject that interests you, as I advised in Concrete Tip #2 "Eat A Balanced Diet," you'll be well-informed on at least one subject.) The second step is to do a little survey of news outlets to see who has covered some aspect of this subject. At minimum, this step will tell you which outlets bothered to cover it at all. Then the questions appear: From among that group, which outlets/reporters seem to know what they're talking about? That is, which ones asked the questions you would have asked, based on the knowledge you have? If the outlet does well on this simple test, then the odds of them being reliable on other subjects will be higher. Of course, this is not a guarantee, which is why we go on to Point Three.
POINT THREE: DO THEY HAVE A RECORD OF ACCURACY/INTEGRITY? This is a question of reputation, and it's a little tricky, as people often confuse popularity with reliability. Keep in mind that large circulations or high Nielsen ratings do not necessarily reflect good journalism, any more than good journalism translates into large circulation or high ratings.
And beware of the standard accolades. The Pulitzer Prize, for example. If a news organization says that it's won a Pulitzer, most people grant it credibility. But who really knows what criteria are used to award a Pulitzer? The Pulitzer organization itself refers to the "subjective nature of the award process." I'm not saying that the Pulitzer Prize is bogus, I'm simply suggesting that the process of assessing the reputation of a news source requires a little work. Don't be bedazzled if a news outlet brags about its shiny medals and trophies. Do your research.
FINAL POINT: PERSONAL REFERENCES. We all know someone who has done a lot of homework in various areas, or who is particularly conscientious in their study habits. Ask these kinds of people what sources they use. And you don't have to ask them directly. If you know a person or a news source to be typically reliable, and they typically reference another source, then that's a sort of reference. Again, no guarantees, but it's a piece of the puzzle.
I remember, many years ago, I was talking to a friend about how much I enjoyed National Public Radio's coverage of something-or-other. When I said that I was really impressed with their coverage, my friend gently mocked me, suggesting that there were a lot of far-better sources that I didn't even know about. How right he was! I learned to check with my smart, more-experienced friends to see what they thought of the sources I was using. It's a good habit, that's why I'm passing it on.
Speaking of passing things on, it's true that Nygaard Notes occasionally recommends some sources for information. That's because I spend a lot of time assessing news sources, which makes me think that some people might consider my opinion useful. Hopefully it's only a small part of their process of narrowing down their information sources.
Remember, though: I never recommend a source because I "trust" it. That's why Concrete Tip #6 for Media Propaganda Self-Defense is this:
DON'T "TRUST" ANY NEWS SOURCE.
In order to illustrate how one might go about assessing the quality of a surrogate in the mainstream media, here's an example based on coverage of the November 10th Republican presidential candidates' debate.
The opening statement by the moderator of that debate, Neil Cavuto of Fox News, included these words: "And so we begin. Candidates, as we gather tonight in this very August theater, just outside and across the country, picketers are gathering as well. They're demanding an immediate hike in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Just a few hours ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed doing the same for all state workers, the first governor to do so." (Actually, Cavuto distorted the issue. The picketers are very clear that they are fighting "$15 an hour and the right to form a union." In other words, the picketing is not just about money, but about power. That's a key point.)
Cavuto then opened the debate by asking the candidates about their position on raising the minimum wage. I don't follow these things (debates, that is) too closely, but to have the opening agenda of a nationally-televised presidential debate determined by grassroots protests is really remarkable.
So remarkable, in fact, that I got to thinking about the questions I would ask if I were a reporter assigned to cover the debate. The answers I would have reported would have been the answers to questions like these: Who are these protesters? What are their skin colors, their ages, their types of employment? What organizations do they belong to? Who organized, supported, and led the protests? How many people turned out, outside the debate in Milwaukee and around the country? What is it about this particular protest that forced the issue onto the Great Stage of a nationally-televised debate?
Almost no corporate media asked, or answered, any of these questions. To get even a hint of some of these answers, one had to turn to non-corporate news sites, and even there the demographics, tactics, and goals of the protests mostly remained unknown.
Why Here? Why Now?
It's not as if the tactics and goals of the protests are mysterious. On April 15th of this year the London Guardian reported on what was, at the time, "the largest protest by low-wage workers in US history." That was when workers in "more than 200 cities across the US" walked off the job or joined protests calling for a minimum wage of $15/hour (and, the Guardian failed to note, the right to form a union). In their coverage of that strike, the Guardian quoted Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who said, "What is really significant about the Fight for $15 movement is—most labor disputes, look inside, they're about a group of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement. In the Fight for $15, unions are helping to organize—on a community basis—a group of workers who are on the fringe of the economy. It's not about union members protecting themselves. It's about moving other people up. This is the whole civil rights movement all over again."
Civil rights, you say? At about the same time as the Guardian report, the excellent website "Racism Review" ran a story in which they expanded on the point made by Professor Chaison. The Racism Review headline read: "Fight for $15 is Fight for Racial Justice," and their reporter asks, "Why is the fight for $15 a fight for racial justice?" By way of answer she cites the Black Youth Project 100, who report on their website that "Black folks make up only 11.4% of the national employed population in 2014, but we made up 20.5% of fast food workers." An excellent commentary in Al Jazeera America from this past June quotes the Department of Labor's most recent "Profile of the Working Poor," which found that "Blacks and Hispanics were more than twice as likely as Whites and Asians to be among the working poor."
There are other reasons to see racial justice as a goal of the protests. Black Youth Project 100 mentioned these facts:
* Black folks make up only 11.4% of the national employed population in 2014, but we made up 20.5% of fast food workers.
When I searched the Lexis/Nexis database of major U.S. newspapers for coverage of the debates that mentioned the phrase "racial justice," the only article I found was an article in the New York Daily News by Juan Gonzales, who was actually reporting on the strikes themselves, and only mentioned the presidential debate in passing. Gonzales reported that "Tuesday's coordinated fast-food strikes in some 270 cities weren't simply for higher wages. For the first time, leaders of the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements joined ranks in a united front with Fight for 15. Their placards proclaimed the new alliance's slogan: 'Economic Justice = Racial Justice = Immigrant Justice.'" He then quoted Shawnette Richardson, a 43-year-old "widow and mother of three... [who] currently works at McDonald's," saying "Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 should be united because in both cases it's largely about minority people"
Credit grassroots organizing for forcing the Republican candidates to discuss the minimum wage. But we have a lot of work to do if we want the larger issues—of which the Fight for $15 is just a part—to be at the top of every candidate's agenda.