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5 Hacks for Identifying Legit (or not) News Sources
A friend asks, “How do I know what news sources are legit? Like, ThinkProgress, for example? Do they suck? I know many sites, but I have no idea which ones are regarded as actually having good information.”
This is a good question, and I wish more people would ask it. The growing ideological segregation of Americans is shutting down the immune system of the body politic, driving us further and further apart, and sending us (slowly) down the path that led (in the 19th century) to civil war. One of the biggest contributors to ideological segregation is the fact that many of us – especially the most politically passionate – get all or most of our news from sources which are strongly aligned with our own ideology. Progressives do not get news from FOX. Conservatives do not get news from Salon. (We even have competing, parallel entities, Media Matters and NewsBusters, dedicated to categorically discrediting the other sides’ sources. The mind-virus now has its own antibodies.)
You'll frequently read a story saying, "X DOES INEXPLICABLY VILLAINOUS THING OUT OF THE BLUE BECAUSE HE IS EVIL," and you'll be genuinely baffled how anyone could possibly do such a villainous thing. But, then, if you go over to the other side’s sources, you'll find out that not only did X do it because of particular circumstances that make more sense in context, but the thing he did isn't actually how the the first source described it. Often, it’s even something that the other side was proud to support when the shoe was on the other foot. (The Great Filibuster Debate was a wonderful example of this: you saw who the hypocrites and liars were on both sides.) The problem is that very few Americans, on either side of the media gap, bother to check the other side's sources; "X IS EVIL" is the only version of the story they ever hear. In a highly polarized environment like present-day America, it’s all too easy to find a group of pros publishing a sharp, well-cited, credible-looking news product that tells – at best – a half-truth: the half-truth that makes their ideology look good, and the competing ideology look bad. It’s not always easy separating these well-funded hatchet-men from the “legit” agencies that, though ideological (everyone has a bias!) are at least willing to give the other side a fair hearing.
I have found that the best way to figure out who is legit is to read a lot on both sides. The two competing political blogospheres read each other, a lot – generate a lot of their content by criticizing the other side's bloggers, actually – so if somebody on one side goes off the rails, you can generally rest assured that somebody on the other side has a corrective piece explaining why they're wrong and/or viciously taunting them for their wrongness. (This can go on for several rounds, as the original side "corrects the correction" and so forth.) Thanks to the self-correcting nature of this system, you quickly learn which sites and even which specific writers are producing serious, fair-minded material based on sober analysis, and which ones misrepresent, distort, ignore context, and generally exist simply to fuel the hate machine. (Also: the sizable number of writers who do the first Monday/Wednesday/Friday but the second Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. The political blagoblags is a world with few outright saints and demons and an awful lot of good-yet-flawed human beings.)
But you have to read fairly extensively, on both sides, to get this benefit. Most people do not have time for that. Most people are never going to remember the difference between Slate and Salon, much less between Slate's Dahlia Lithwick (hatchet-lady) and Slate's Will Saletan (universally respected left-moderate), nor the magazine's overall default stance (stridently center-left, but usually fair enough to the other side).
So here are some hacks I suggest, as you evaluate a given news source. They are rules-of-thumb I've developed from a lot of years trying to sort out the good from the deceptive on the (mis)information superhighway. I can't claim any authority for them aside from my own experience... but my experience is pretty extensive.
1. Does this source portray the other side as somewhat mistaken, or does the source portray the other side as utterly ignorant and/or outright evil? Does it portray its side as people of heroic virtue?
The fact of the matter is that neither side is utterly ignorant and/or evil, and heroes and villains are pretty hard to come by in politics. Moreover, the heroes and villains are about evenly distributed between the two "teams": there are bad Republicans and good Democrats, and vice versa -- plenty of 'em!
A news source that's portraying a story as good-vs.-evil, or intelligent-vs.-ignorant -- with its readers on the story of the good and the intelligent, of course -- is very likely trying to make its audience feel good about itself, not advance the cause of truth and critical thinking.
Good examples: ThinkProgress and Breitbart.
2. Is this shareable? Did I find it because it was shared with me? Do I want to share it with others?
Things are (usually) shareable because they make you feel a certain way (emphasis on "certain"), and real life, soberly reported and analyzed, doesn't make you feel certain about stuff. If it's shareable, it's suspect. Not always -- heaven knows I share stuff, some of it good -- but often.
Good examples: AlterNet and The Blaze. Or, possibly better: Upworthy and Drudge Report. Drudge isn't exactly a sterling example of social media share-worthiness, but it's specifically designed to get old people to share its headlines over email and telephones and letter writing and whatever else old people use in lieu of social media.
3. Is it snarky?
Snark depends on contempt. Contempt depends on thinking somebody else is somehow beneath you -- morally, intellectually, whatever. So a snarky political news source depends on the belief that its side is objectively superior to the other side. It's not (see #1), so they have to distort a great deal to make it look that way. Often they distort using snark, which kills two birds with one stone. Even when these sources are actually fairly good at presenting the facts (The Daily Show under Stewart probably misrepresents something or ignores key context only about once every two minutes -- which is not at all bad for the format), they play that contempt card so hard that their audience becomes unbelievably closed-minded. (Nothing screams "epistemic closure" like a t-shirt for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.)
Good examples: Jezebel and Jezebel and Jezebel anything else owned by Gawker. They are monsters.
Conservatives are absolutely terrible at snark -- I don't know why, but you know it's true -- so we don't have an exact parallel for this one. However, conservative talk radio, which is also fueled by contempt for “liberals” (as understood by talk radio hosts) serves the same function in the conservative ecosystem as as Jon Stewart does in the progressive.
4. Does it conceive itself as having a monopoly on the facts?
Neither side has a monopoly on facts. If one side ever did win a monopoly on the facts, that side would win politics forever, because people are neither incredibly stupid nor incredibly evil (see #1). Yet there are those on both sides -- and even in the middle -- who believe they are simply logical, rational people operating from obvious, indisputable premises on all matters, and everyone else is just poorly informed.
Vox is a great example of this from the left. PolitiFact is a great example of it from the center. I'm fairly sure a good chunk of Fox News does this, but I minimize my exposure to Fox, so I'm not sure. They portray themselves as sober, impartial analysts, but suggest or insist that they are the only sober, impartial analysts, and that no reasonable analyst could reach a different conclusion than they themselves. This makes their audience feel smart about itself -- they've found The Truth that no one else has -- but has to leave out competing evidence and arguments in order to make the illusion work.
FiveThirtyEight is a great example of NOT doing this despite the temptation -- Nate Silver is a leftist, is open about being a leftist, has an incredible command of the facts, many of which could be wielded very effectively in a Vox-style "explainer" site, but Nate, at least, rarely (if ever) allows his conclusions to exceed the reach of his facts. He never pretends that disputed facts are indisputable the way Ezra Klein sometimes (often) does. There's a big difference between knowing and presenting the facts of the case and claiming (as some do) that all the facts are on their side. (There are some cases where all the facts are on one side or the other. But not many, and they’re about evenly distributed between the two ideologies.)
4a. Does it claim to be nonpartisan?
Rule of thumb: The more strongly a site feels the need to call itself non-partisan, the more partisan it is. This is especially true if it claims to be ideological but not partisan -- that just means they're so far to the extreme edge of their party that they spend as much time hitting their own political allies as their political opponents. Like the Tea Party. Or, as it happens, ThinkProgress, going by their About page.
5. Does the source depend entirely on repackaging others' stories, or does it also do its own reporting?
I'm not really sure why this is -- journalistic ethics? -- but publishers that are actively involved in newsgathering, rather than just news analysis, tend to be a little better than others. I imagine this is why people still care about the op-ed pages of major newspapers, but it also applies to small, explicitly opinionated outlets like Slate and National Review. (It also used to apply to the New Republic, but they recently blew up their whole business model, and I'm not sure where they stand now.) Perhaps sites that don't do any reporting of their own, like AddictingInfo and CNS News, find that they need to hype up their stories in order to give people a reason to read them, and that's why their quality is so much lower. I'm not sure the reason, I just know the bottom line: more original reporting = better source.
There's five criteria by which to judge a news source. You'll notice quickly that no source passes all these tests all the time. That's because no news source is objective, and no news source is perfect. There are only terrible sources and less-terrible ones. The more-terrible ones are not completely useless; sometimes they even push important stories forward (and sometimes, even more rarely, their hysteria is justified!). But you have to really be careful to check their facts and seek out the other side's version of the story.
For my money, the single least-terrible news source out there is NPR. They have a viewpoint, but they USUALLY keep it out of their reporting, hold back from drawing conclusions, and report the crap out of most stories, so the reader gets all of the facts, most of the time. (That's a good slogan for a news network, by the way: "All of the facts! Most of the time!") If I had to live the rest of my life on two sources, I'd be torn between NPR and the Wall Street Journal (the right's nearest match to NPR) or National Review and The Atlantic -- two unapologetically ideological magazines staffed with flawed and partisan but essentially decent human beings who are constantly policing each other's stories and who are generally capable of self-criticism and disagreement amongst themselves.
TLDR: ThinkProgress is terrible, but AddictingInfo is worse.