Getting Facts, Analysis, and Opinion

Where do you get your “news” and what are you believing?

Profile
My Twitter profile is a simple list of the things that make me me.

In my Twitter profile, you’ll find the phrase truth seeker. I’m occasionally ribbed by far right Twitter users who don’t like my one-liners, often at the expense of people they support, including Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Sean Hanity, Bill O’Reilly, and Ted Cruz. These people, who cry “fake news” whenever they hear something they don’t like, wouldn’t know the truth if it hit them with a baseball bat.

But I take truth seriously. I want to know the truth about things. I want to be able to form my own opinions based on facts. I try to be yet another phrase in my profile: independent thinker.

And that’s why I’m so frustrated when people share inaccurate information, including links to false or seriously biased news stories on social media. It was enough to drive me off Facebook and it keeps me fine-tuning the list of people I follow on Twitter.

But what are good, reliable sources of information? Back in February, I blogged about an article in Forbes that attempted to identify some of them. For the most part, I agreed with the list. But it was limited and it failed to indicate any biases or whether the source presented facts, analysis, or opinion.

Some Definitions

Let me take a moment to define each of these, because it’s very important to understand.

  • Facts are truthful statements of what is or was. This is black and white stuff that can be proven and is not questioned (except maybe by people who cannot accept the truth).
  • Analysis puts facts into context in an attempt to explain why they matter. This can be extremely helpful for folks trying to understand the impact of past and current events and why they should care. Although knowledgable people can often make their own analysis, when there are too many facts that impact a situation for the average person to understand, fact-based analysis can be vital for the average person to make an informed decision. Bias can come into play in analysis, but the best analysis sticks to facts and avoids bias.
  • Bias, Defined
    The definition of bias.

    Opinion is what one person or organization thinks about a situation. Opinion can be well-reasoned, based on solid facts and good, informed analysis. It can also be based on false information and similarly flawed analysis. Most often, it’s falls somewhere in between with a mixture of good and bad information and analysis. But it always includes bias, which can seriously degrade the value of the opinion — especially for someone able to think for herself.

So what am I looking for in my news sources? Facts and unbiased analysis so I can make my own opinion.

The Chart

A while back, I came upon an infographic that listed news media sources on a chart. On the Y (vertical) axis was how factual the source was. Higher was more factual. On the X (horizontal) axis was how biased the source was. Middle was unbiased, left was liberally biased and right was conservative biased. The original version of this chart listed quite a few news sources. In answer to a question a Twitter friend asked the other day, I went looking for it online. I found version 3.0, which I’m reproducing in a reduced size here:

Media Chart 3.0
Version 3.0 of the chart by Vanessa Otero. (I highly recommend that you click the chart to view a larger size and the article that explains it.) This is an extremely handy tool for evaluating news sources — so handy that I’ve printed out a copy for future reference and will be looking for updates.

Understanding the Chart

No chart is perfect and if you read the comments on the post that explains this version of the chart, you’ll see that people have argued with its author. In most instances, they’re claiming that various sources should be shifted left or right from their current positions.

If you accept that it’s at least 95% representative of reality — which is where I stand — if you’re looking for facts, you should be most interested in the news sources inside the green box. That actually makes me feel pretty good because that’s where most of the news sources I listed the other day reside: the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, and NPR. In fact, my main source of news is NPR, which is minimally biased fact reporting. I listen to NPR on the radio all day most days when I’m working at home.

If you want analysis, look for sources inside the yellow box. Ideally, you’d want something in the middle of the yellow box, which is nearly empty. One of my favored news sources, the Guardian, falls slightly left in the top of that box; another, the New Yorker, is slightly down and slightly more left. This isn’t terribly surprising since I lean more liberal than conservative in most of my views. Still, neither source is either “hyper-partisan liberal” or “liberal utter garbage/conspiracy theories.” Whew.

The orange and red boxes contain sources that are light on facts, and high on biased opinion. Unsurprisingly most of the news sources listed are either far left or far right. The red box sources are especially troubling in that they include misleading information and/or inaccurate or fabricated information geared toward either far left or far right media consumers. This is where you’ll find Occupy Democrats and the Palmer Report on the left and Fox News and Breitbart on the right. The chart notes that they are damaging to public discourse. (Duh.)

Using the Chart

How do I use this chart? First of all, it’s made me want to spend more time with sources like Bloomberg, Time, and the Economist. These look like they might be good sources of fact and unbiased analysis.

Next, when faced with a “news” story from an unfamiliar source, I’ll look it up on this chart. If it’s in the red box, I’ll basically disregard it. Why should I waste my time trying to figure out what part, if any, in the story is factual? I certainly won’t share it — and I’ll downgrade my opinion of the reliability and judgement of anyone who does.

If it’s in the orange box, I may or may not disregard it, depending on the topic and the availability of corroborating stories. But again, why should I waste my time trying to figure out what to believe in a story?

Instead, I’ll focus on what’s in the green and yellow boxes, as close to the middle of the X axis as possible.

What about You?

What do you think? I’m not talking about the accuracy of the chart here — if you have comments about that, leave them for the chart’s author and she’ll address them. I’m just curious about where people get their news, what they’re looking for, and what they share. Let us know what you think.

And please — do your best to fight real fake news. Don’t share links to unreliable or heavily biased “news” sources.

Real News from Real Sources

Want to know where to get facts?

Forbes ArticleThe other day, one of my Facebook friends shared a link to an article on Forbes that discussed the difficulty of finding reliable news sources in a world where so many sources are labeled “fake.” The article listed, with objective descriptions, what the author considered honest and reliable news sources. I’ll run down the list quickly here; I urge you to read the article to get additional information about each source:

  1. The New York Times
  2. The Wall Street Journal
  3. The Washington Post
  4. BBC
  5. The Economist
  6. The New Yorker
  7. Wire Services: The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News
  8. Foreign Affairs
  9. The Atlantic
  10. Politico

There are runners up and financial resources, too. Again, I urge you to read the article to get those lists. (Spoiler alert: CNN is on a list; Fox News, Brietbart, Huffington Post, and Mother Jones are not.)

As I added on Facebook when I shared a link to the article, the real trick is convincing the people who already turn to less reliable news outlets that these news outlets are better and more truthful. Another challenge is getting people to understand the difference between fact-based articles produced by journalists and opinion pieces produced by pundits.

If you’re interested in doing the right thing during these difficult times — and don’t don’t fool yourself: these are difficult times — start by informing yourself about an issue by turning to reliable news sources. (Note the plural there; try to learn from at least two good sources.) Be careful to get information from journalists and not pundits. (In other words, skip the OpEd and political commentary pages/columns.) Go beyond the headlines! Think about what you’ve learned. Discuss it with other people you know and trust who have done the same thing. Then form your own opinions and act accordingly. Acting means calling your congressperson or senators when an issue comes up to vote. These days, it also means showing up for peaceful protests and doing what you can to help convince those sitting on the fence to see things your way and also act.

It’s sad to me that so many people are falling for “alternative facts” fed to them by unreliable news sources, many of which are playing political games for ratings or other gains. What’s even worse is that the “fake news” label is being applied to what are truly reliable news sources.

Stop the ignorance. Get your information from reliable sources and make your own decisions.

Twitter vs. Facebook: Ferguson Edition

It’s exactly what others predicted and I expected.

Last night, I was relaxing with a glass of wine, watching Lara Croft: Tomb Raider on my big TV, when I happened to check Twitter to see what was new. The Grand Jury had just handed down its decision in the Michael Brown case: They were not going to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him. There would be no trial, no punishment for the man who shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

On Twitter

The first Ferguson-related tweet I saw last night.

The first inkling I had of this came in a retweet made by a friend that was timestamped 8:06 PM (Pacific).

I already knew deep down inside what the Jury’s verdict would be. I think we all did when we saw how Ferguson was preparing before releasing the news.

I scrolled backwards through my Twitter timeline and saw dozens of tweets, many of them with photos of the rioting going on in Ferguson: looting, burning cars — including police cars and businesses, tear gas smoke, national guard deployments. The situation in Ferguson had gone to hell quickly, fueled by anger and frustration. In other cities — Washington DC, New York, Seattle, Oakland — protesters were gathering. Journalists out in the crowds reported dealing with close calls, injuries, and thefts. Meanwhile, bits and pieces of the documents related to the case appeared in tweets with commentary. The President’s speech, which I also missed, was quoted a handful of times.

I only follow 193 Twitter accounts — many of which are product-related or not very active — and my timeline was packed with a never-ending stream of #Ferguson tweets, many of which were retweeted by NPR News. When I scrolled back to the most recent tweets, each time I refreshed another few tweets about Ferguson would appear. Intermingled with those were non-related tweets; more on that in a moment.

I turned off Lara Croft (who was enjoying a luxuriant bath after successfully destroying a robot in her own home) and tried to pick up “antenna TV.” No joy. (Note to self: get a decent antenna for the TV.)

On Facebook

I went to Facebook. It was like stepping into another world. Only one of my Facebook friends — a woman who lives in St. Louis — was posting updates related to Ferguson. The same updates appeared in her Twitter stream on my Timeline. On Facebook, however, she was the only voice talking about Ferguson among a stream of people sharing cat videos and blown out HDR photos and lists of Top 10 Spelling Peeves and links to link bait content.

Were these two social networks operating on the same planet?

Content Filtering

This tweet appeared in the NPR article; it summarizes exactly what I observed last night.

The difference between Twitter and Facebook feeds did not really surprise me. Only hours before, I’d shared a link (on Facebook, ironically) to an NPR article titled “Silicon Valley’s Power Over The Free Press: Why It Matters.” The article discussed how the media has lost control of distribution by allowing social networks to fill a void they left by initially ignoring social media as a distribution method. The danger to the public is that social networks have the power to control what you see in your social network. Nowhere is that more apparent than when comparing Twitter, which doesn’t (currently) filter timelines, and Facebook, which does.

From the article:

Algorithms and protocols that run social platforms affect discourse, and the engineers behind those protocols don’t have to think about journalism or democratic responsibility in how news is created and disseminated.

A prime example of this is the first nights of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. If you were on Twitter, you saw an endless stream of protest photos and links. If you were on Facebook, you saw nearly nothing. All because engineers decide what news you see.

We already know that Facebook has manipulated our timelines in an experiment about emotions. Clearly, they’re also manipulating our timelines to filter news about specific topics. Does anyone actually think this is a good idea?

Back to Twitter

This tweet promoting Wenatchee appeared in the middle of a long string of tweets about burning cars, vandalism, and an injured journalist. The first word I think of when I see this tweet in that context: uncaring.

One of the things I noticed — and I have to admit that it bothered me — was that among all the horrific news and photos coming out of Ferguson there were cheerful tweets — many of them “promoted” (i.e., ads) — pushing products or websites or Twitter accounts. They revealed social media marketing efforts for what they are: a completely detached, automated scheduling of advertisements aimed at whoever follows the Twitter account.

I wasn’t the only person to notice the problem with scheduled tweets.

I wasn’t the only person to notice this. One of my friends retweeted a comment by another observant Twitter user who advised social media workers to check scheduled tweets. Did any of them do so? Who knows.

A U.K. Twitter user doesn’t think too highly of what’s going on here.

I fell asleep a while later, but woke up around 1 AM (as I sometimes do) and decided to check in on the Ferguson situation on Twitter, which seemed to be my best source. I think it was 3 AM back there and things were settling down. Many of the protesters had gone home. The U.K. was awake — I follow several people who live over there — tweeting about U.K. things. The few tweets about what was going on over here were not complementary. The world apparently sees the U.S. as a hotbed of racism.

Racism
Jim Henson is probably rolling in his grave.

And maybe it is. This morning, I was horrified to find an update, 10 hours old, with the image here at the top of my Facebook newsfeed. There were 11 likes. Needless to say, I don’t follow the updates of the person who posted it anymore — and am actually ashamed that he’s one of my real-life friends.