Staying Informed

We’re so sure that we’re right – every single one of us.

And it’s a shame, really. Most of us have no desire to exist in a state of willful ignorance. We generally want to understand the “how” of things.

The problem is, we also want to be the ones who have everything figured out. Some of us wish so desperately for our views to be truth that we’ve forgotten that we could be wrong. More and more, we’ve given in to that selfish instinct at the perilous cost of being truly informed.

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If we would be completely honest with ourselves, we don’t know jack. The above chart from the linked Poynter piece shows the average number of questions that single-source consumers of news answered correctly on five-question foreign and domestic affairs quizzes. Individuals who consistently adhere to a strict diet of cable news channels such as FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN are usually about as informed as – or in some cases, less informed than – those who choose not to keep up with the news in general. But even those that avoid more slanted traditional outlets still answer less than two of the five questions correctly when they consume media from a single source.

And these data are four years old – you know as well as I do that the rise of unchecked, alternative media and a further politicizing of content by the so-called mainstream media hasn’t helped these numbers. And it’s not just single-source consumption that hurts; a broader, pernicious tendency to stick to the general neighborhood of news that confirms your preexisting notions has become the norm at an alarming rate. We’re increasingly content with spending more time trying to prove our narrow-minded and limited perspectives as unquestionable fact and fewer hours of the day attempting to seek out the objective truth – a truth that could potentially undo the carefully-constructed worlds so many of us choose to inhabit.

The irony here is those who stand to benefit the most from a diversification of media keep returning to the same modes of distribution. The most vocal cheerleaders for a particular news source will tend to champion one of the previously mentioned cable outlets whose prioritized consumption consistently leads to a less-informed individual. When we take a look at media outlet trustworthiness filtered through a five-way gradient on the horizontal axis of political ideology, it reveals just how quickly we tend to gather on each pole.

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Distrust of journalistic institutions is at an all-time high and some of that doubt is absolutely warranted. The old adage of “if it bleeds, it leads” has too often become the mantra of both national and local television. There’s no shortage of media conglomerates and their holdings that are trying to remain viable, profitable companies by playing to our worst fears in the hopes that we won’t be able to take our eyes off of the screen or turn off the radio.

But to blame the fourth estate alone as the proprietor of our current division as a country is wishful thinking at its worst. A fair share of responsibility must be placed at the feet of the consumer, especially those who proudly boast of audacious ignorance and an unwillingness to consider perspectives other than one’s own.

I firmly believe that if we all challenged ourselves to seek alternative windows into the world, we’d be a lot closer to solving a number of problems that plague institutions such as journalism and government. Which is why we as media consumers need to reevaluate the avenues through which we inform ourselves, and a surprising amount of progress can be made by just following a few basic steps.

  1. Approach every new piece of information as a learning experience with the understanding that your preconceived notions on that topic may be partially or entirely incorrect.
  2. Understand that your view of the world is but one in a vast sea of valuable perspectives. Mark Twain once said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts,” and that “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” That inspired thinking applies to more than just physical travel.
  3. Seek out multiple (two at the absolute minimum) sources when researching any given topic, and purposely seek out views that exist in stark contrast to yours (RSS readers such as Feedly are great tools to help you organize and quickly consume a wider range of news). Don’t forget to diversify your news by varying mediums and countries of origin.
  4. Be a voracious reader – you can never be too informed.
  5. Check your emotions and ego at the door; a certain amount of stoicism is required to ascertain the truth of contentious matters.

It’s almost comically simple when you look at it in a listicle, but combating biases is easier said than done. It takes a concerted, constant effort to seek objective truth, and that includes coming to terms with the possibility that you could be wrong. I struggle with it every day. And I’m sure you do, too.

So, yeah, there is an alarming amount of awful journalism that has infiltrated the public consciousness as social media has helped us circumvent the traditional media gatekeepers. But all over the world, right now, the best journalism in the history of the field is being produced and it’s worth seeking out, because the more we expand our understanding of the world around us and those who inhabit it, the more likely we are to see our similarities instead of our differences.

-JG

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