Dear Jessica

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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Dear Jessica
October 27 2023 Is there ANY place that I can get accurate news? We are living in a dark time when giants like @nytimes and @washingtonpost rush to conclusions in trying to keep pace with social media. Social media is not a credible news source. Please folks guide me to a place where I can get well sourced information. —Jessica Chastain @jes_chastain [posting on X, 10/18/23]
Yes, Jessica, there is accurate news. This is a question many of my UCLA Extension opinion-writing students have asked me over the years, as well as many of my earnest, politically minded friends. We don’t know each other, but I thought you were fantastic in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “A Most Violent Year,” and if you don’t mind, let me take a stab at trying to respond.

First off, “social media” isn’t anything. There is no such thing. There are many different social media, not just one medium, platform, company, owner, business model, news editor, or ideological purpose. They vary widely in quality, depending on who posts and what they post. My friends on Facebook, for instance, are mainly journalists, communicators, and political professionals. While some tend toward over-emotional and over-simplified memes, they mainly link to reputable legacy news sites and serious digital-native news and commentary sites. I learn a lot from their posts, and I post liberally from my own sources, all carefully curated from serious outlets.

Now take the platform where you posted your plea, for example, “X,” the Elon Musk-owned platform formerly known as Twitter. The digital news site Vox, among many others, recently reported that under a new law that took effect last August, the European Union is currently investigating X’s handling of misinformation and hate speech since the Hamas surprise attack on Israel and the onset of a real shooting war. The EU cites X as the single largest source of disinformation, and found that verified accounts—the ones with that little blue check-mark that you have to pay extra for—account for 74% of the Israel-Hamas war false claims and misinformation.

Wired magazine recently reported that Musk himself, for instance, who postures as a fearless advocate for free speech and robust debate—is “continuing to spread disinformation about the conflict, conversing with a known QAnon promoter, boosting anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, and laughing at a video detailing how transphobic content on X can get you new followers.”

Our First Amendment precludes any comparable content law in this country, but Twitter/X has been an open sewer for a long time, and under Musk has even adopted new “engagement” policies that financially incentivize spreading viral disinformation. Nothing prevents you from dumping out your X account and searching out more sane and responsible platforms on your own.

Social media however, aren’t the real villains here: it’s the lack of media literacy and critical thinking. These platforms are powerful tools, and like any tool they can be misused and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. But they would be a lot less dangerous if people exercised more judgment in what they post, and more critical analysis of what they choose to read.

Why are people so quick to post or share without first checking its veracity? Why are they so quick to believe only what they want to believe? When I started out in journalism school many years ago, we learned the basic principle that people unconsciously filter the communications messages they receive through selective attention, selective perception, and selective retention. In plain language, they only see what they want to see, understand the way they want to understand, and only remember what they want to remember.

It’s a wonder any substantive messaging ever makes it through all those psychological screens at all. But that’s how we learn—by confronting, evaluating, and eventually accepting inconvenient truths. And you identify those truths not by a futile search for a single magical font of perfect journalistic knowledge, but by the messy process of hard slogging through a range of sources of news and analysis, which you compare and contrast with one another. There are no shortcuts.

We used to think there were shortcuts. Once upon a time, there were only three TV networks, with nightly news programs like NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report or the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite; maybe one local and one major newspaper to subscribe to in the morning or s, and a handful of weekly news magazines like Time, Life, Look, and maybe The Saturday Evening Post. The audience consumed a heavily curated, pre-digested media diet, and without even understanding or questioning it, for the most part they blindly trusted the editorial process to give them genuinely accurate, fair and balanced news.

The internet blew up that safe, simple, and comfortable old model. Today there are millions of outlets, essentially no gatekeepers, and thousands and thousands of bad actors with sinister motives pushing propaganda, misinformation and disinformation of uncertain provenance. It’s a media jungle out there.

Jessica, that rush to judgment you decry isn’t driven solely by lumbering legacy media outlets struggling to keep up with fleet-footed social media. Competitive pressures have long pushed news outlets to jump the gun on stories, and in the old days there were few incentives and even fewer ways to effectively correct an erroneous story, while updates could easily fall by the wayside as they were overtaken by fresh news events.

What’s different today is that the internet has turned every daily outlet into the equivalent of yesterday’s wire services, where stories would emerge in fragments, with a series of additional quotes, reactions, and updates, and periodically a complete write-thru correcting, aggregating, and integrating all the earlier pieces of information into a fresh new narrative. But the public only saw that final product, not the process behind it. The daily paper and the nightly news served up a tasty little news dish laid out on a platter—and nobody saw the mess in the kitchen where it had all been prepared.

So in conclusion, Jessica, a healthy news diet won’t rely on a new “wonder food,” but on a well-rounded variety of nutritious items: at least one serious local and national paper like the NYT, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today; a few national broadcast networks like PBS, NPR, CNN, MSNBC and C-SPAN; wire services like AP, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse; a range of serious opinion journals like The Atlantic, Harpers, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, The Bulwark and The Dispatch; political news journals like Politico, Axios, and The Hill; one or two business and financial publications like Fortune, Forbes, The Economist, and Fast Company; or for international news, the BBC, The Guardian, Al-Jazeera. And depending on your interest, there are myriad specialty publications focusing on energy, the environment, science, human rights, and so on.

It’s a lot of work to stay informed. Unlike previous generations, we are fortunate to live in an era of virtually instantaneous, unlimited, near-free and easy access to information, but even so let us never forget that it’s still only as good as what we make of it.

In the words of Michel de Montaigne, the first and still one of the world’s greatest essayists: “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.”
Joel Bellman

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October 27, 2023