a class on how to consume news

SUNY Stonybrook and the University of Hong Kong have a course on Coursera called Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens. I wouldn’t have thought I needed a course on how to consume the news, but maybe a refresher on the basics of journalism and how to spot propaganda, whether government or corporate or something else, is not a bad idea. Prior to 2003 or so, I tended to trust the New York Times. After the weapons of mass destruction debacle, I widened my sources of news. But I stuck to professional journalistic sources, along with some of the emerging aggregators of journalistic sources, like Slate’s Todays Papers, which were a relatively new idea at the time. So the lesson I learned back then was that professional journalistic sources can be susceptible to propaganda. (Noam Chomsky explained pretty well why this is a long time ago in Manufacturing Consent – basically the cheapest and lowest-risk thing to do from a business perspective is to parrot government and corporate press releases.)

Today I find myself reading a wide range of aggregators, magazines and blogs, some making no pretense of avoiding overtly partisan language. Some of the stuffy but venerable old sources like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Economist are behind pay walls and I am not willing to pay for those when there are so many sources of free information. I’ve dropped the BBC because it seems lean heavily on videos these days and I have no time for those, and likewise I don’t have time for NPR or podcasts in general.

When I have occasionally read the New York Times lately, I am surprised at the openly disrespectful language they are using to cover the Trump administration. While I don’t think the individuals they are covering are worthy of respect, the office still is. And by using this kind of language they are walking into the trap of appearing partisan, when they are actually presenting facts and analysis in a reasonably fair and ethical way. I guess Fox News started the process of lowering the bar for everyone, which is a shame. I would even put John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver in this category – even though I tend to agree with them and find them funny, I am uncomfortable with the idea of serious news as entertainment. I would rather keep the two separate.

Basically my strategy is to take in a wide range of information and let my brain do the sifting. I tend to trust my own brain above most others, but I have some nagging doubts whether the biases in what goes in ultimately affect what comes out the other end, which is my internal world view or mental model of the world. And in turn that is what determines my views on the issues, who I vote for, and what issues I am willing to invest precious time, money or effort in trying to influence.

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