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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Is it All Misinformation in The Information Age?

Today there are literally thousands of places to get news and information. In our fast paced, changing by the second world, the internet provides those with access the most convenient platform to provide real time news and information at the click of a button.

In this, The Information Age, truth has become a premium commodity. Accurate and speedy information makes a big difference in this competitive world. Pertinent news and information and its delivery is the backdrop of every successful business and whether we like it or not, it plays a factor in most of our lives.

There are newspaper sights , blogs , and huge networks all sharing a piece of the information pie. The traditional newspaper that many of us grew up reading is quickly becoming a thing of the past replaced by an electronic version or completely phased out altogether. Companies gobble up as much as they can in an effort to control as much of the pie as possible.

Here, in The Mohawk Valley, Gatehouse Media has come as close to a newspaper monopoly in this area as possible by not only owning the Observer-Dispatch but also having interest in The Herkimer Valley Papers as well.

Thankfully there are laws that prevent a total monopoly. What if Gatehouse purchased WKTV? They would own all the local news right?

There is no doubt traditional newspapers are suffering. Out of the top 25 papers in the country only one, The Wall Street Journal, saw a slight positive blip in circulation. The remaining 24 saw a loss.

Magazines are not doing to much better, even the National Enquirer saw a 64% drop in readers between 2001-2009.

So, where are we getting our news?

According to 2006 study by the Pew Research Center 81% of Americans get the news everyday. Out of that 57% watch t.v., 40% read a paper, 36% listen to the radio and 23% get it online.

Obviously there is some overlap,the numbers reflect multiple sources which means most of us do not get our news from a singular, exclusive place. We may peruse the paper for a minute, with a coffee in the morning, rush to work and log-on to at break.

An informal poll mirrored results typical of the trends in circulation we have been witnessing. When I posed the question at the Utica's bustling Union Station, time and time again I was told :"I get my news online" or "I watch it on the television". Everyone in a rush, I had problems giving papers away.

The online option has actually added a growing boost to readership for a lot of papers but that does not translate into circulation. It does, however, show what the future holds for journalism.

The free online option has created a growing niche for papers that are still surviving. The online hybrid. The hybrid is a newspaper that offers an electronic version and a traditional version to subscribers. The hybrids have been able to recoup potential losses by offering online subscriptions to the more tech savvy readers while doing their best to retain and reverse the dwindling number of home delivery customers.

It is a losing battle and they know it; every time an elderly, proud 40 year subscriber succumbs to old age, they lose one subscriber forever and more often than not he/she is not being replaced.

So with this large, transient population attentive online there has never been a better opportunity for public relations gurus, special interests and anyone else to manipulate the media.

How is it done?

The distinction between useless information and news can be blurred by slick packaging. Fake news sites like The Onion or BeanSoupTimes do a great job of packaging absurdity. In fact, some of the ridiculous headlines are ironically believable in light of the up to the minute Octomom coverage we had to endure last year from so-called reputable sources.

Using the same model, reputable messengers such as Foxnews or CNN wield a great deal of influence. It's obvious they both command huge audiences but they also stoke the flames of particular ideologies. Each give the people what they want. They each know the demographic proclivities that come into to play when Anderson Cooper 360 is on. On the other hand, if you want as many guns as possible and your country back, tune into Fox. Foxnews, cow-towing to the conservative, wingnut crowd through bombastic blowhards like Glen Beck.

CNN is not much better with their tear jerking, semi-exploitive, scripted look into Being Black in America with the, admittedly hot, Soledad O'Brien to keep us calm and sympathetic.

The distinctions between the two sources are drawn around ideological and economic lines wrenching as much drama out of a story as the law allows, leaving truth as the casualty.

How did Joe The Plumber end up a household name?

For one, he looks like the average Joe. He, like Sarah Palin, represents what I call the anti-informed . And who can forget him standing in front of President Obama (pre-election) with his arm across his chest,and his hand resting on chin, scrutinizing the Harvard Grad on the response to his complex question. One of a thousand pre-Presidential conversations but this one was important, the inference was clear: Joe the Plumber shares your Middle American fears about this smooth talking, educated black man.
Joe went viral.

The term viral translates into untold success or misery for anyone lucky or unlucky enough to go there, viral that is. For one to be christened the flavor of the month in cyberspace is an instant opportunity to prolong the obligatory fifteen minutes of fame each of us are granted or to find a big rock to hide under.

The poor guy, an unwitting pawn for two sides to play a cultural, very public, tug-o-war with. Unwisely propped up by the right to dumb down the debate on our economic woes. Mercilessly scrutinized by the left for his mediocrity. A hero for one group and a symbolic, sort of tragic, example for another.

But don't pity him,he made out well, Joe is no longer a plumber he is reporting for an online new source in The Middle East.

The Healthcare Reform Townhall was our new media toy, a multi-headed Joe The Plumber. All news reports regarding the recent debates were all focused on the raucous town hall meetings and outrageous allegations being thrown around at them. Again we saw constant loops of the same outspoken citizen of the day, giving emotional soundbites to an eager group of listeners.

Where did people get all these wild accusations from?

Misinformation played a huge role in 'the news' reporting. The news reporting plays a huge role in peoples views.

Who can forget the panels on FOX insinuating the crowd at the Montana Town hall was vetted because people were well behaved?

More misinformation thrown around regarding the healthcare reform debate included talk of death panels, rationing, and public option for everyone on planet Earth. These stories sent shockwaves around the country. People were screaming for "My America" back.

Sometimes misinformation is dangerous even reckless and reporting it is inciteful. Just ponder the reports that our President is not a United States citizen. The story actually got traction and subsequent airplay on Foxnews courtesy of Glen Beck. In light of journalistic integrity and the existence of a violent lunatic fringe; the act is/was borderline treasonous. When I personally think of past white race riots and lynchings I cannot help but cringe from the role newspapers played in the sick dramas.

By and large the news media (Local and National) ignored the core issues of Healthcare Reform and focused on the fight. Polarizing people must be good for marketing.

I'm sure many people exhausted by all the yelling, were waiting for a reporter to actually explain the difference between the rhetoric being tossed around by both sides and the truth: what was actually in the current bill.But why would anyone want to go out and find what's really in the Bill? That is positively snore inducing and does not sell ads. Nothing like the mixed martial arts of a town hall meeting.

We see that news, information and truth are totally separate qualities that join in the most divine moments to create what we like to call a relevant story.

Journalism has forever changed; it is now a numbers game based on hits(online visits) and advertising revenue. Investigative Journalism has been replaced with in-depth reporting. Like timely important exposes like To Catch a Predator.

Freedom of Information Act is simply a preemptive tool to let the Government know what the press is looking for.

The definition of a big story has changed. There are rules attached to that definition. For one, a story is not big if it hurts any interest of the paper. Two, if it interest the paper, automatically, it is a big story.

Locally we have been doing a bit better. The Observer-Dispatch has done some good investigative reporting in recent history. And, to their credit, so has The Utica Daily News. But do not expect it to last or happen to often. On most days one can check the headlines on all three local websites (,, or and see no distinction. Which means everyone agrees on what is important and no one is out there trying or allowed to 'break' a story. Basically reporters sit around and wait for a tragedy to happen or someone to get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

Despite all these variables getting in the way of relevant truth there are few reputable websites that can be trusted to give an objective view of headline making claims and unverified but widely used facts.

To clear the air we need a good source of objective information. The fact is we often go places online or read different periodicals to seek out the answers we want not the truth.

For the truth starved, circumspect observer there are few places to get good objective information. One of them is Politifact. Politifact is Pulitzer prize winning project sponsored by The St. Petersburg Times. Basically they research claims made by politicians and/or heads of organizations and check them for validity.

The easy to navigate site utilizes a truth-o-meter to determine the truthfulness of each claim.Sarah Palin Ex-Governor from Alaska was rated a Pants on Fire liar for her claims regarding 'death panels' within the context of the Healthcare reform debate. There is a detailed explanation to clearly validate the verdict; it also allows the reader to determine the difference between a small lie and a 'whopper'.

Another good site is sponsored by The Annenburg Public Policy Center. Factcheck is also easily navigated with a list of the most recent absurdities and half-truths being thrown around by Democrats and Republicans alike. Again there is an explanation to verify the truth.

The third on my list is the Washington Post's FactChecker blog. which provides detailed information based on solid research and good old fashioned reporting. One of their banner stories on 10/01/09 was an old, popular myth regarding young black males. What do you think? Are more young black (18-24) males in college or jail?

Now I'm Done

1 comment:

David B. Dancy said...

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