The New Media Diet

It’s news to nobody that the news and media industry has gone through, and continues to go through, some tough times. Whether as a result or a cause of it, most content today – excuse my French – sucks. The quality of your average news or other media/content outlet today is shockingly bad.

Sturgeon was such an optimist.

The current situation would easily have you believe that journalism is a lost skill, as there are precious few examples of good journalism around. I cherish the remaining ones that there are, but by and large… *sigh* Among the exaggerating and fear-mongering tabloids to the ostensibly neutral but agenda-driven national newspapers and television to the click-baiting headlines online, I sometimes feel the media industry today deserves every little bit of disruption it’s getting.

Great Guidance – Ignored

It’s not for the lack of good guidance – for example, there’s a good book called Elements of Journalism which outlines the essential principles and practices of good journalism. They are nicely recapped here by the American Press Institute. Go through the guidelines and reflect how well your average media outlet performs – or doesn’t, as it quickly becomes painfully clear most media is essentially failing their own criteria.

The guidelines start off with what ought to be a given; Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. Except when you spend even a few minutes looking into an average story, you’re likely to find more than your fair share of errors, lies and half truths. Mostly, that criteria is a fail today.

Next up is Its first loyalty is to citizens. One doesn’t need to look very closely at the driving forces of media industry today to see that principle is mostly out the window, too. Governments globally de-funding institutions that are supposed to be unbiased doesn’t exactly help either. So, fail.

It doesn’t really get any better further down the list. Or what do you think of the performance of your average media outlet against principles of Its essence is a discipline of verification, It must serve as an independent monitor of power, It must strive to keep the significant interesting and relevant or It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional. Fail, fail, fail and fail.

These are, if you ask me, all great principles. Unfortunately, the vast majority of what bills itself as journalism today neglects to adhere to most of them. What gives? Do they need a refresher on their own guidelines? Acknowledging that people and organizations are never truly free of all bias, I would like to add one point to the list:

State Your Bias Explicitly

It’s shocking how few media outlets do this. Often the bias is clearly visible to any discerning reader, and yet they media organization claims to be neutral. Newsflash: such bullshit is very transparent. Admit your bias and spell out your values.

As a positive example, I offer The Economist: they are abundantly clear about what they believe in, where their biases lie and how they see the world. I applaud them for that, and wish all media had the ounce of introspective capability to produce a similar statement.

Stating one’s bias alone would be a huge improvement; not only would it show that the outlet acknowledges its limits in being “unbiased”, but it would also allow the reader to filter any information in the proper light.

The New Media Diet

So, media is broken. What to do? Throw hands up in the air, give up and tune into Fox News? With the old guard increasingly letting us down, where does one go to get a balanced view of the world?

A range of places. As Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, once said, “You shouldn’t use anything as the sole source for anything, in my view.” One has to develop a diverse list of sources; let’s call it a New Media Diet.

But how? I don’t know, really, but here’s what I currently do in my continually developing quest for the best possible situational awareness:

  • Skip the “breaking news”. Life is better when you pay no attention to the “news news”. The vast majority of it is a) negative, b) meaningless noise and worse, c) bad-quality noise. Skipping all that also saves you a lot of time from focusing on irrelevant things . Besides, if/when there is a 9/11-scale event, you will hear about it anyway, and if your train is late, well, see below.
  • Use custom app alerts. Now, some “breaking news” are useful. I don’t want to hear if there’s a curiosity delay on a freeway I never take, but I do want to know if my train is delayed. I also don’t necessarily want to know about a bushfire 500km away, but I do want to know about one that could get close to home. Luckily, one can usually get an app (or construct an IFTTT rule) for the majority of such situations without getting all the irrelevant notifications.
  • Read quality papers. There are still a few; The Guardian does good work regularly, and New York Times is among the better ones also. Of the weeklies, I would single out The Economist and of monthlies, The Atlantic.
  • Read Books. Pick carefully, and try to find at least two books on any given topic – ideally ones that take contrary views. Good books are invaluable in providing ample context into complex issues and deepening your knowledge on various topics. I prefer physical books, but YMMV.
  • Use social media wisely. Twitter and other social media tools can provide interesting glimpses into how some people think, what they believe in and even some of those more useful breaking news – all very valuable. There is scope for having interesting conversations, too, but a word of warning is in order: it all depends on who you follow, so be very, very careful there – and don’t get dragged into incessant, pointless arguments which all social media is riddled with. If you can’t resist the temptation of being this guy in the comic, you’re better off not being on social media – or online forums – at all.
  • Read blogs and online sources – selectively. Blogs and other online sources are a good way to find out lots of interesting stuff. I subscribe to several hundred RSS feeds, spanning from expert blogs on technical issues and research organizations to more generalist thinkers and think tanks, to some blogs more focused on cultural observations, some on patents and so on and on. As with any other source, filtering is needed. As a tool to manage this, Feedly works well – so well that I’m kind of happy now that Google Reader was discontinued as it forced me to switch (I wasn’t at the time though).
  • Dive into research, statistics and open data. Scientific journals are good methods of finding out about interesting developments early on, particularly on the advancements of technologies underlying many future products or services. Governments also have bureaus of statistics as well as, as do organizations like the UN and World Bank, open data sources that can be very useful to do some deep dives into.
  • Talk to people. As different and diverse set of people you can find. It can be an eye-opening experience to notice how differently different people see the world. Few things beat a good face-to-face chat.

Keeping tabs of all of that is a lot of work, for sure. But it does, in my opinion, provide a much better view of the world than reading any one newspaper or other source would provide – and a much, much better view than reading one of those “good old” newspapers 20 years ago could ever have offered.

In that sense, maybe media isn’t broken. It’s just that good content is more distributed than before, and for the New Media to be useful, you need to do the mixing yourself.

You may also ask what developing a good situational awareness is good for – but the answer to that is a long list, so maybe a topic for another time.

Thoughts? Additions? I’d welcome any other useful sources and tips that people have.

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