Consuming Media in an Age of Bullsh!t

The opinion section is the chocolate cake of journalism; it tastes good, but you can’t eat it by itself for long and stay healthy. 

I spend too much time on social media. Because of that, I’ve developed what I feel is a reasonable set of filters to tell the difference between plausible news and bullshit. 

I start with what the insurance industry calls “knock out questions.” These are questions an insurer asks upfront to see if the potential risk is so high that they can skip the more-detailed assessment, saving everyone time. These are things I can assess in a few seconds to decide whether I’m even going to click the link.

  1. Is this a link to Youtube? If it is, it’s out. While I tolerate Youtube for entertainment, I don’t for news. The site’s goal is not to help you find facts; it’s to keep your eyeballs on the screen and feed you advertisements. I feel the same way about cable news, though I’ll at least entertain the idea that cable news might sometimes show actual news.
  2. Does the website name contain any of the following words: patriot, tea party, liberty? If so, I ignore it. Let’s be honest with each other: the tea party movement was a reactionary backlash against a black president. America is now paying with the lives of doctors and nurses for having a government full of incurious science deniers. 

With the knock out questions out of the way, I look at a few general things to help me understand the potential slant of what I’m reading.

The first thing I do is look at the publication. Is it a known news organization? I’m going to give national newspapers with actual news departments far more credence than an entertainment outlet. Does this organization have a known bias? My skepticism is going to be much higher for organizations with naked political agendas, and I’ll look for corroborating stories at other outlets. 

Is the article an opinion piece? I immediately slide opinion pieces further toward the bullshit side of my internal scale. The opinion section is the chocolate cake of journalism; it tastes good, but you can’t eat it by itself for long and stay healthy. 

Then I look at the author. Is it someone I recognize? If not, what else have they published? Is this article trying to appear neutral when they have a history of writing things that otherwise have a clear bias? That’s a sign this is bullshit in disguise. Do they have a publishing history? If not, I’m immediately skeptical unless they are experts in their field and are speaking to their expertise. 

If it’s an article about verifiable science, I like to see the sources the authors are citing. Does the article even have citations? Are those citations coming from reputable journals? Is this a contrarian view of a hot topic, and if so, what new evidence is on offer to support this view? I don’t need to understand the science, but something that is based on peer-reviewed journals is more believable than something that is plausible but untested. A contrarian opinion is just that: an opinion, not science.

Similar to the verifiable science, I like to know if this is a press release in disguise. Are the people being cited the public relations arm of some company? If so, I maintain a healthy skepticism about whatever is being claimed. If there are sources in the article, are they named? If they aren’t, I’m skeptical. How many sources are in the article? If there’s only one, this isn’t news, it’s gossip. If there are none, it’s an opinion piece. 

Is this method perfect? No. Are there things I’m forgetting? Probably! Does this enormously cut down the level of bullshit I consume? For sure.