Surviving Journalism in the 21st Century

Be honest: these days not a day goes by that at least one person you know doesn’t make a fool of themselves by forwarding completely BS news stories via Facebook, Twitter, or some other public forum. It’s not just that people are gullible (although that’s definitely part of it). No, the main problem is that journalism has gone to the dogs as information sharing has only gotten easier and faster. Fake news pops up more often than real news, so of course people are going to get caught in the tidal wave of stupidity. has had a series going strong for weeks now that is entirely about what idiotic stories fooled the world this week. It’s almost impossible not to be that fool ever now and then, because there are just so many opportunities!

Although, if you fell for this one I'm going to have to ask you to leave the Internet now...
Although, if you fell for this one I’m going to have to ask you to leave the Internet now…

So how can you take steps to make sure that you look like a fool less often than your friends and family? Here’s a couple of tips:

Before you get caught up in a story, check the source.

I could scarcely count the number of times that I’ve seen people get all worked up over a news story that was actually a self-admitted joke. A big example is anything published by “The Daily Currant“. The Currant, much like The Onion, is a joke website that presents itself as the “news”. It is completely satirical and tells you so all over its website, so there is no need to get worked up over anything they publish; it’s all fake and just for fun.

So tip number one is to be aware that sites like this one are commonplace, and you should check to make sure that what you’re looking at isn’t a joke before you get yourself all emotionally invested.

Even if the source looks good, consider that THEY may have been fooled.

One of the biggest problems with journalism these days is that it moves too fast. The Internet has made it possible for people on opposite sides of the planet to share information in the blink of an eye, so if reputable news sites want to keep up they have to cut out nasty little time-suckers…like fact-checking.

For big news companies it has become a much easier route to simply apologize later for getting something wrong than to be the only site not reporting the story because they’re busy trying to establish whether or not it’s for real. On an all-too-often basis huge, reputable companies such as The Huffington Post and the New York Times are publishing complete BS because from a business standpoint they can’t afford to allow their fact-checkers the time to confirm the story.

So keep this in mind: even the most reputable companies make mistakes, and these days they make them more and more often.

Remember that there are an AMAZING number of liars out there.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Internet is an amazing repository of information, but it is also an enormous, digital trash heep.

I could post an article on this blog tomorrow that claims that chewing gum gives you cancer. Most people would look at it and assume that I’d lost my mind, but if I made the post professional-looking enough, with “sources” and quotes from “doctors”, a few people would believe it, or at least consider that maybe it might actually be true. And because of the knee-jerk, zero-fact-checking reaction that we’ve already talked about, it just takes the right person to stumble across my false report and decide to gamble on it.

Any schmuck can make something up and post it on the internet, and there are many, many schmucks out there doing just that. So many so that it becomes outrageously difficult to discern the truth amongst the sea of crap, particularly for people who are focused on getting the newest, shiniest news out ASAP!

So, okay, let’s say that you’ve been smart. You made sure that the story is being reported by a real news company, that enough time has passed for fact-checkers to officially okay the story, and that the original source material for the story’s claims is reputable. The story therefore must be true, right? Think again.

Consider, just for a moment, that news companies LIE. Or perhaps not lie outright, but definitely twist the truth. No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist or anything. I just understand that the news is a business, just like any other, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to do what businesses care about most: make money.

Make no mistake, if Pepsi or Coke paid the news to say that cola cures cancer, they would find a way to twist the lie into a believable story. There might be about thirty degrees of separation between them, but if money is on the line they will find a way to link one cola ingredient to the stimulation of a certain set of cells in the body that are linked to some obscure theory that may possibly, someday, after LOADS more study and research, lead to some kind of new (untested and unproven) cancer treatment. And then they will take that tiny thread of a link and they will report it under the 72-pt font heading: “Suffering from Cancer? Drink More Cola!” Because that’s what businesses (and remember, the news companies are just business like any other) do: they find a way to make you have an emotional response that subsequently leads you to react exactly as they want you to.

What it all comes down to – what I’m encouraging you to do – is to be doubtful, and use your own brain. Don’t accept something as truth just because a friend shared it on Facebook, or it appeared on The Huffington Post’s website, or on the 5 o’clock news. Take a step back, think about what you’re reading or watching or being told, do the extra research if necessary, and make sure that you are confident about the reality of the story before you spread the flame further. It’s not easy to think critically all the time, especially with the vast quantity of information being thrown at us virtually non-stop, and we’re all bound to make mistakes from time to time. But if we’d all make just a little bit of an effort to do our own fact-checking, maybe we could slow down the tidal wave of misinformation and pure BS that is washing over the land and drowning us all.

You don’t want to drown in your own foolishness, right? Right.

If “No News is Good News”, what is Fake News?

I was still in grade school when this crazy thing we call the Internet really started to take off. I can still remember the day when our school got it’s first public-use computer. My best friend and I were two of the students chosen to check it out first. I can remember one of the first things we did was to set up our very first Hotmail email accounts. It was all rather exciting.

Since then the Internet has only grown and grown. It has become a place of endless information. A person can type almost anything into Google and come back with hundreds, if not thousands, of results. The Internet has allowed us to share news, information, thoughts and feelings, habits and hobbies, and anything else we can think of with people from the opposite side of the planet and everywhere in between. For the first time in human history we can know exactly what is going on on the other side of world as it is happening. That’s pretty damn amazing.

But while the ever-expanding World Wide Web is filled with a great many wonderful and helpful things, it is also rife with pitfalls and truly excellent methods to make one look excruciatingly foolish. Everything has become so fast, so instant, and so often irreversible, that it only takes a moment of not thinking clearly or a quick slip of the finger in order to do something dumb. It takes half a second to hit a “like” or “share” button, and in this day of rushed moments and instant gratification we often do so without even bothering to look twice at the thing that we’re allying ourselves with publicly.

The worst offenders of this, in my opinion, are Facebook users sharing “news”.

Facebook has become a great place to share things that are important to us. If we see a news report talking about something we feel strongly about, it is a simple thing for us to share that report on our Facebook wall where we know that it will be seen, and possibly re-shared, by our friends and family and hopefully lots of other people as well. This is a great way to get important issues out there.

It’s also a great way to make yourself look like a moron.

Too often, I’ve found, people have become apt to “like”, “share”, and leave complicated, emotion-fueled comments in response to big, scary-looking news stories…without ever once bothering to read the story.

This past Black Friday there was a very scary-sounding story floating around Facebook. It described a number of brutal deaths at the hands of insane shoppers, including one woman who had stabbed another woman to death in order to secure the last XBox One in Walmart. When I saw the story pop up on my Facebook feed I immediately raised a skeptical eyebrow and clicked on the link to read the whole article. It quickly became evident that the article was a joke. It got more and more foolish as it went on, describing complete nonsense and throwing several outright, completely obvious lies in near the end. Anyone who took the two minutes required to read the entire article would easily figure out that it was a load of bull. If they took an extra five seconds to Google the name of the news source they’d have found out that that particular website was a joke and satire news site, much like The Onion. Everything they report is made up.

From what I saw on my Facebook feed over the following few days, my husband and I were some of the only people who bothered to take that two minutes and five seconds out of our day. Multiple people on my Facebook feed shared that story, along with angry comments about how Black Friday is evil and the big corporations who support it should be ashamed of themselves. One such friend actually argued with people who commented back to tell him that the article was fake, only giving in when people started quoting the ridiculous end parts of the article that he hadn’t actually bothered to read.

These things happen on a daily basis now-a-days because people are much more willing to take the one second required to hit “share” than the two minutes required to fact-check and see whether the thing they’re sharing is true or not. It’s an extremely lazy reaction that allows false information to thrive, and makes otherwise intelligent people look like emotion-driven fools.

Recently Colorado decided to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Immediately afterward Facebook feeds were pasted with the sensational headline, “Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado On First Day of Legalization”. People were losing their minds over this headline, and as well they should have…had it been even the tiniest bit true. The article was posted on a website called The Daily Currant, a website which, when searched for on Google, comes up with the subtitle: The Global Satirical Newspaper of Record. But no one bothered to visit the website. They simply saw the headline, got mad, and shared the link without ever looking into the facts. Whether you agree or disagree with the legalization of marijuana, this is a terrible method for getting your point across.

We are emotional creatures, it’s true. We hate waiting and love moving at breakneck speeds. It’s in our nature. But when we use the internet in the manner I’ve described above, we make ourselves look stupid. We paint a picture of ourselves as gullible fools and destroy any faith that others may have in us as a reliable source. We ruin our image. And a lot of the time, no one even bothers to let us know how foolish we’ve been, because fools like to try to argue and defend themselves, which only makes them look even more foolish.

I won’t claim that I’ve never fallen for such a thing myself – I’m fairly certain all of us have tripped over a false claim here and there – but I will point out that blindly believing in something that sparks an emotional reaction is how we end up with situations like this.

Do a little research, friends. The same tool that allows you to share big scary news reports with everyone you’ve ever met, and everyone they’ve ever met, is the same tool that can help you get your facts straight in just a few short moments.