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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

How To Be A Good Consumer of Media

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - With all of the bad sources and articles out there, how do you know what to trust?

It has become a very prominent mainstream concern: How do I know what sources to look at? How do I know if I should trust this article or this author? I get asked this, and KoopaTV has dealt with the issue many times over when we write about bad media sources and particularly bad reporting.

For over two years now, we've maintained a list of good and bad media sources. It's not only for our own use in finding things to commentate on, but since we've made it public, it's for the benefit of our readers. It's one of the more popular pages on KoopaTV (and surely not for the affiliates part of it, considering how few of those we have). However, we simply can't make it exhaustive. Not every bad source is on there, and not every good source is on there.

Now we're at this point of mainstream controversy where certain sore people out there are blaming “fake news” sites shared on social media (not KoopaTV, given how anti-viral the social media ecosystem is towards us) for influencing the presidential election. Everyone is scared of being mislead.

Good! So you're hopefully reading this because you're wondering how to be skeptical. Well, just yesterday, KoopaTV published an article called Trump Transition Team Considering Reggie Fils-Aime?!. This article exists to serve as a test case. Oh, and it was REALLY fun to write. Well, using that, this article will serve as a guide on how to be a good consumer of media.

Hopefully, long-time KoopaTV readers immediately could identify that Trump Transition Team/Reggie Fils-Aime article as a parody. I was parodying how actual “news” articles have been written for the past two weeks about the Donald Trump transition team. There has been loads of garbage that isn't true coming from media sources everywhere. And while KoopaTV wrote this one article as a parody, other organisations, many of them mainstream and otherwise trusted by the masses as “legitimate”, just make stuff up but pass it off as serious. That's their whole business model.

Motivations For Bad Reporting


So, what are some reasons why the media would do this? I've come up with some:

  • Stories from exclusive sources (making something up is exclusive, after all) is great for ratings. You have the “inside scoop” and your investigative reporting outfit seems more competent than it actually is.
  • You're playing to people's confirmation biases. This gets you hits, and when people try to state their assumptions as facts to others, when challenged, they'll refer to you.
    • An example going on right now is the claim that 3 million illegals voted in the election for Hillary, and that's why she's winning the popular vote. The claim has been going around on right-wing sites with a loose command of the facts, and has been crediting this tweet from a Gregg Phillips guy, who, according to the comments in the tweet, has been misrepresented and actually hasn't done any analysis yet.
  • They have a quota for articles they must write per time period, and there isn't enough actual news to talk about so they make things up.
  • They have to report on rumours because their competitors are doing so, and if they don't they'll fall behind the rat race.
  • Reporting fringe claims as the truth is helpful for long-tail search engine optimisation. (Being referred to as the original source for a claim, even if false, also helps link authority!)
  • Achieving fame.
  • That media source is pushing an ideological agenda and they are not interested in being objective.
  • It's really fun to make stuff up.
There might be more reasons, of course, but that should cover a lot of them. Looking past how fun it was to write yesterday's article, let's see how those bullet-pointed reasons may apply to that article.

Looking at an Example


Yesterday's article portrayed the news about Reggie as exclusive by opening with this:
“According to these sources, speaking exclusively with KoopaTV under the condition of anonymity”
That's the media's favourite trick. Anonymous, exclusive sources! That means you can't verify it for yourself. Another favourite trick is:
“KoopaTV reached out to both the Trump transition team and to Nintendo of America for comments, but neither organisation has responded.”
At first glance, that makes it look like the group or person the story is about is trying to hide something. Why, they haven't responded to inquiry! What are they trying to cover up, keeping things in the shadows?! In reality, there could be a variety of reasons why they haven't responded, ranging from the media source never actually sending out a request (which KoopaTV didn't, for this occasion, though we tried contacting Ms. Hope Hicks from the Trump team months ago on another matter and never got a response) to the media source not giving a reasonable amount of response time (after all, you gotta be the first one to release the story, accuracy be damned!), to it just being the company's policy not to respond to these things. Maybe they're swamped. Maybe the PR person is on vacation. Who knows, but the media doesn't want you to think about that.

Playing to people's biases and pushing an ideological agenda frequently go together. For example, take the paragraph in last night's article beginning with:
“This comes amidst controversies surrounding both the president-elect and Mr. Fils-Aime.”
That kind of language to introduce tangential information can be quite common in some supposedly objective news reporting. It has nothing to do with the story, but the reporter just wants to remind you that the person they're talking about is bad — at least in their opinion, or the opinion of the reporter's organisation. Plus, the reminder might get you wanting to look at whatever story they wrote about that tangential event, which helps all sorts of metrics. By the way, pay attention to what a news source labels as a “controversy”. Sometimes they just call it that because they find it problematic. They want to convince you it's problematic too. I used the opportunity to talk about MOTHER 3, since I'm pretty concerned about its lack of release. It has nothing to do with how Reggie would theoretically perform overlooking Pacific salmon, but I'm mad!

The article-quota reason is a lot less sinister than some of these other ones, but it can be a powerful reason for smaller, niche sites, like a lot of gaming-focused ones. Not enough Nintendo news now that their games for 2016 are out already and there's nothing left to preview? Why, let's puff some stuff up about the Nintendo Switch, or write that Reggie is interested in joining Trump's team! And if you're in a bind for stuff to write about, your competitors might be facing the same situation, which can lead to the catch-up-to-competitors reason as well.

If someone has heard some claim from a friend about an event and its sounds outstanding, they might look it up. After all, most everyone except yours truly keeps in their pocket a small device that can access search engines from anywhere they can imagine traversing to. If you search Reggie Fils-Aime and Donald Trump's names together on any search engine, last night's article should be on the front page. Why would anyone search those together? I dunno, but hey, if it actually happens, we'll be raking in all of that traffic. (I'm sure you can come up with far more likely search scenarios, including the previously-mentioned 3 million illegals voting one.) That kind of traffic can help with another motivation: Fame. “KoopaTV is that site that broke that story between Trump and Reggie!” That's more than whatever we're known for right now, anyway.

Reading Techniques


Now that we understand motivations, how do we make sure we don't fall victim to believing falsehoods?

First, you want to know their source. You also want to know their source's source. Websites might link to other websites that had the story before they do. Where'd they get it from? That could be made up. A false metric that other people might go by is “well, if it's reported on everywhere, it must be true.” If everyone is reporting it from the same original source that happens to be false, and the re-reporters haven't independently verified it, then everyone reporting it doesn't make it more true! Anonymous sources should be taken with a grain of salt, and named sources might either just have a nice-sounding name/title (of a possibly non-existent group), might have an axe to grind against the subject of the news story, or they just want to be famous. (Example: Those women who accused Herman Cain of sexual misconduct to end his presidential campaign in 2011. They made it all up, and went away after he dropped out.) You may also wish to consider that the news story is taking something out-of-context, or leaving out context entirely.

Second, you'll need to be aware of that media source's biases. Some sources will tell you upfront they aren't actual journalists, just opinion-makers/talking heads/commentators/analysts. KoopaTV is an example of such. Everyone knows where I stand politically, and where I stand on gaming industry issues. (That's why you're reading this site, right?) Note that just because a source is biased, does not mean that you cannot trust them. Biased sources can tell the truth and report things accurately, but it is something to consider. Other sources, such as the mainstream media, present themselves as objective journalists who just tell you the facts. Be wary of that, 'cause I'm weary of that. Take a critical eye on how the article is worded. Many “just-the-facts” articles will use “weasel words” or “loaded language” to try to subliminally shape your opinion. Many will also have ridiculous “clickbait” headlines, a method that KoopaTV avoids.

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Justice For All Judge Turnabout Big Top defense closing trial
If the news article isn't convincing for whatever reason, don't believe it.

Think of yourself as the Judge from the Ace Attorney videogame series. Your pre-existing notion of the situation (the status quo) is analogous to the Prosecution. You should be deferring to that by default. In order to believe something, the Defence must overturn your assumptions. A good defence attorney will use logic, evidence, and testimony. As the judge, you have a certain level of Confidence in what the attorney is telling you. (The health metre in the Ace Attorney franchise is canonically called the Judge's Confidence. Don't ask me how that's directly connected to your soul's health when using the Magatama in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials & Tribulations.)

If you're finding faults in what the source is telling you and the source is not able to adequately address those, your confidence in it will break. After enough strikes, you can grant a Game Over to the source and consider the news story to be trash.

What should your default assumptions be? For me, it's observing tangible actions. After actions, it's their words — using primary sources. If I want to know what Donald Trump thinks about George Zimmerman, I'll listen to Donald Trump say that George Zimmerman is a bad guy, not what some morons on Twitter do which is make stuff up about both, and say they're friends with one another or something.

If the primary source is lying or hiding, then it's the investigative reporter's duty to prove that with evidence. The reporter or source making up a lie doesn't count as evidence.

In the end, you just need to have an intuitive set of instincts. If it seems fishy or smelly, don't trust it. If you would receive the story in an e-mail and come to the conclusion they're trying to phish you or it's chain-mail garbage, don't trust it. (Pro-tip: Reputable sources will spell words correctly, and they will try to use good grammar.) That said, be aware of your own biases, which may result in you thinking something is fishy even though it isn't, and believing something is not fishy even though it is!

Being a hard-news journalist is really... hard, with all of these ways to find faults with it. That's why we don't even try to consider ourselves journalists at KoopaTV. We're nowhere near that standard! However, we do try to be honest, which is more than you can say about many media sources that do consider what they do to be journalism.


Ludwig would like to mention that instances such as last night's article — where truth was thrown out for full-blown levity — are very rare on KoopaTV. KoopaTV believes in truth AND levity — at the same time. Still, the parody had tons of truth in its reason for existence, just not its content.


Now it's your turn to try out skepticism. Take a look at the (false) story reported that Nintendo would stop production of the Wii U on November 4 and evaluate it.
Don't take this article to mean not to trust anything from the Internet. The medium you read something in doesn't matter.
News isn't the only faked thing you need to be aware of. DMCA takedown requests are, too.
Speaking of MOTHER 3, here is another opportunity to test your discerning skills.

4 comments :

  1. In the "reading techniques" section, in the third paragraph you wrote "...present themselves as objective journalists who just tell you the facts. Be weary of that." I think you meant "Be wary of that."

    Does this suggest you're not a reputable source, due to a spelling mistake? Or that you should "Go read a book!"?

    I mean, I suppose am pretty weary of fake journalists in this harsh day and age ;)

    Heh.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you can be both weary and wary. Personally, I'm more weary of it, since I consume all sorts of media to figure out what I can write for this site. You may be different, so I'll change the text accordingly.

      I've also thought of more stuff to write since I wrote this (regarding headlines), so I'll add that too.

      Delete
  2. I'm choosing to interpret all this as meta and this article is the unreliable one and we're gonna have Fils-Aime lead the Department of Games

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ........
      :X

      You're free to interpret it that way! You might even be right. Guess you'll find out in two months.

      Delete

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