Can we still trust the news?

There’s a growing sentiment that you can’t trust the news. It’s the reason why, for starters, people are protesting in the streets because they’re being asked to were a piece of cloth over their faces during a global pandemic. People seem to believe that the media is only interested in lying to us.

I don’t believe that. I believe that, just as in most professions, the majority of people who work in them are good, honest, hard-working people who want to do their jobs well. The problem is that these hard-working people don’t make the final decisions about what does and doesn’t get published. And the people who do, more than being interested in keeping us well informed, are interested in selling our eyeballs to advertisers.

This means that the news we read, while not necessarily untrue, is strongly geared towards making us angry or afraid than keeping us informed. Which was the issue behind Ariana Pekary’s decision to quit MSNBC last month:

You may not watch MSNBC but just know that this problem still affects you, too. All the commercial networks function the same – and no doubt that content seeps into your social media feed, one way or the other.

It’s possible that I’m more sensitive to the editorial process due to my background in public radio, where no decision I ever witnessed was predicated on how a topic or guest would “rate.” The longer I was at MSNBC, the more I saw such choices — it’s practically baked in to the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day. Likewise, it’s taboo to discuss how the ratings scheme distorts content, or it’s simply taken for granted, because everyone in the commercial broadcast news industry is doing the exact same thing.

But behind closed doors, industry leaders will admit the damage that’s being done.

“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”

Whatever end of the political spectrum you’re on, this problem affects you. And while it may not be possible to force the news media to start acting responsibly, it is possible to be responsible about the sources of our information and how we allow it to form our views of the world. Simply opting-out of the news isn’t the answer. There are things happening in the world that we genuinely need to be informed about. But staying informed now also requires that we stay alert.