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Bolling: How to Be a Responsible Media Consumer

I found this offering from Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams a bit amusing: America cannot survive a broken news media [1].

Williams opines that if America’s media system becomes “broken” it will jeopardize American democracy. He’s right, but in reality, America’s media system has been “broken” for years!

Some of the problems with America’s media system have been caused by the media themselves. For example, it is hard to deny that most media outlets these days show a significant amount of bias in reporting the news. That is certainly true of media sources like Fox News, which has a decidedly conservative bias; and MSNBC, which has a decidedly liberal bias. But it is also true of most other media outlets as well. The media has not done a very good job enforcing objectivity in reporting, which is a major reason why so few people have confidence in the media these days.

However, a lot of the problems we have with the media are due to our own failure to understand that we are living in a time when we are confronted with many different types of media. Gone are the days of limited media access and objective reporting. We need to be wise consumers of the media, and we are not. Consider the following.

First, there are media outlets whose primary focus remains traditional – reporting the news and educating the public. This is what the media was intended to do and did up until about 30 years ago. This would include the mainstream media (print and broadcast), as well as many news shows on cable TV, etc. Their focus is on informing the public about what is going on in the world, although many of them certainly suffer from bias, which we need to understand as consumers.

However, these days we are also confronted advocacy media, Infotainment media, and social media.

Advocacy media includes shows like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, or Van Jones and Rachel Maddow. Many other examples could be given. These are technically news shows, in that you can obtain information from them; but they are advocacy news shows. They are not just trying to inform and educate the public, they are openly advocating a particular point of view and trying to persuade readers, viewers and listeners to embrace their point of view.

There is nothing wrong with advocacy media, we just need to know what it is, and what it is trying to accomplish, when we encounter it. And we need to beware that if the only news sources we consume are decidedly conservative or liberal advocacy news sources we run the risk of falling into the echo chamber, and starting to think that everyone sees the world the same way we do, which will of course never be the case.

Infotainment media includes shows like Steven Colbert or The Daily Show. Once again, these shows may impart some information, but their primary goal is to entertain, not educate; and they often orient the focus of their entertainment efforts to advocating a particular point of view.

And then there is social media, which may have done more to promote the echo chamber and create political polarization than anything in our lifetime.

A 2021 report from Pew Research found that 48 percent of Americans say they get their news regularly from social media, with about 31 percent relying mostly on Facebook. This is the worst possible way to get your news, because a large percentage of what we find on social media is inaccurate and misleading, and the rest is likely subject to a tremendous bias and advocacy in its orientation.

So, a lot of the responsibility for the failed media system is that we have become irresponsible consumers of the media.

An important part of democratic preservation is a highly educated, enlightened and engaged citizenry, and there is much we need to be educated about today. That includes the basic structure and operation of political parties and government itself, but it also includes how to be responsible consumers of the news.

Many may ask: How can I become a more responsible consumer of the news? How can I be sure that I am being objectively educated and informed, and not manipulated by some media outlet? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to that question.

My best advice is to get your news from multiple sources, and subject yourself to sources that present deferring philosophical approaches to the news. At least that way you can truly be educated, consider different perspectives, and then engage in a process of critical thinking that helps you form your own opinions on the important issues of the day.

But don’t be a lemming! Don’t let anyone tell you what to think, and don’t just get your news from any single source or consider only one tainted perspective on the news. Remember the Pied Piper? Lemmings will inevitably be led to destruction!