Objective verification of sources of information | The Livingstone Company

News of the creation of a Disinformation Governance Council within the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is raising eyebrows, skepticism and fears of ‘Big Brotherism’ and tyranny, as described by a Enterprise drive in a recent letter.

Ultimately, however, the public, the press, and Congress know next to nothing about the rationale or its intent. There is already a general decline. We can be sure that some details will follow – and that public opinion/skepticism will influence how and if anything comes of it. Let’s not quite panic yet.

The author juxtaposed the DHS advice behind the First Amendment. He correctly explained that “the primary responsibility of a free press was to keep government in line”. Fair enough as far as that goes. But it is not correct that the founders’ motive was that “they understood that some newspapers would distort information or publish fabricated stories”. In early America, virtually everything that was printed—early newspapers and pamphlets—was decidedly partisan, usually backed by a political group or individuals wishing to express their own views.

It is true that the founders understood that an essential American right was the ability of the people to freely express their opinions and to criticize their government. In those days, “distorted information and fabricated stories” were the main course in our fledgling country. The political comments and slanders were brutal even by today’s standards and the Founders had no intention of controlling them in any way.

Evolving from the late 1890s into the early 20th century—despite a period of “yellow journalism” that aided the United States in the Spanish–American War—an obligation of objectivity and professionalism began to influence and professionalize American journalism. Interestingly, some of this influence came from advertisers who wanted their messages to appear in respected publications.

Weekly and daily newspapers were the nation’s main news channels, but talk and commercial radio emerged in the 1930s, followed by live television in the 1940s.

Fast forward to today: Yes, it’s good for a conscientious citizen to consult a multitude of information sources. As citizens, we face a seemingly insurmountable challenge in knowing which sources to consult. Today we have a modern Tower of Babel in the form of the ubiquitous World Wide Web, unfettered cable television, talk radio on steroids, and a burgeoning panoply of social media.

Who do we believe? Going back to the previously published letter, I fully agree that several sources of information should be consulted. It’s unfortunate that so many people consider MSNBC or Fox Broadcasting to be a single source of reliable information. What passes for our old collective definition of news has morphed into “infotainment” opinion with perhaps just a core of fact that makes something seem like legit.

The key lies in its own responsibility to objectively verify news and information sources. When I was an editor and professor of journalism at university, my mantra to reporters and students was, “If your mom tells you she loves you, check it out.

Specifically, let’s look at the letter writer’s assertion that “…. six companies – actually six CEOs – control 95% of the information we see. A website-only source called “Business Insider” promotes this finding with an interesting chart supporting this media consolidation data point, but doing so at 90%. But closer examination suggests “clickbait”. As some of us learned in Sunday school, there is a sin of commission and a sin of omission.

Closer examination confirms that today’s major television news outlets are held within these six media conglomerates, but are dwarfed by the conglomerates’ entertainment holdings. Besides showing that only News Corp. (Fox) of the six conglomerates owns stakes in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, there is no mention of the American newspaper industry, let alone magazines, self-published and organizational communications and a variety of other sources of information.

Accepting that six media conglomerate CEOs control more than 90% “of the news we see” fails the common sense test. It makes no sense that these six people are humanly capable of dictating the informational content of all entities within their conglomerates, but it certainly makes for a good conspiracy theory. For one thing, CEOs are too busy monitoring their bottom line.

Unfortunately, we can’t put the genius of the internet or social media back in the bottle. But it is possible, I think, for serious people to become better consumers of news and information, especially electronic media. Just as we are skeptical of headlines and doctored photos on supermarket tabloids, we would do well, as the previous editor suggests, to evaluate “a wealth of news sources” before deciding whether something fantastic is actually true.

“If your mother tells you she loves you…”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Big Timber’s Peter D. Fox has over 40 years of experience as a journalist and editor in Wisconsin and Montana and as a communications professional. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from the University of Wisconsin.