Critical thinking and journalism

posted by Jeff | Monday, December 27, 2021, 3:54 PM | comments: 0

The issue of critical thinking came up today on one of my sites, and someone outright asked if I thought that people were capable of doing it. My answer is absolutely, yes. I don't believe that people are inherently stupid, but they may make choices to be willfully ignorant, which is something different. The bigger discussion though was around sniffing out good journalism from bad. I don't think it's that difficult.

First off, especially from anyone who grew up with three TV networks and one or more local newspapers with wide distribution, there was a time where the integrity and trustworthiness of news organizations was pretty obvious. You had three guys on network TV competing for your trust, and at best two local newspapers. Getting it right and delivering actual news was a moral imperative. Now, with endless sources of "media," that imperative no longer exists. Most now strive just to give you what you want.

It isn't hard to sniff out what's factual and valuable. You can't just throw your hands up and yell "but the media!" The first test is whether or not the news agency has true autonomy to report the facts. Because deregulation lifted ownership limits, many broadcast stations have the same owner, and you've seen the clips of editorials that use the same copy nationally to advance an agenda. That's not independent. But even for huge conglomerates, sometimes the news agencies take actions that prove their autonomy from their parent. Compare the disciplinary firings or demotions from CBS and NBC to the non-action of Fox News, for example.

Print journalism, even online, has the ability to be accountable to the public by opening itself as a public forum. This is one reason I admire the New York Times, because they've printed some batshit crazy things from politicians, and they've taken heat for it. Their comment engine moderation does not exclude unpopular opinions.

Fundamentally, good journalism is about facts though, and it's not hard to see that without deep analysis. If something is reported, how has it been verified? What backs up the facts? Are there multiple sources? Have the facts been quantified, measured or validated in context? Does the headline support the facts or color their meaning? In the case of government or fiscal power, does it act as a monitor or advocate? You can generally answer all of these questions with anything that you read. This is intro to journalism kind of stuff, but everyone should learn to ask these questions when they get their "news." In fact, it should start with understanding the difference between news and opinion, something that cable news in particular tends to blur, but the difference should be obvious.

I'm not ready to write off society as being incapable of critical thinking.


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