TL;DR This is a long post. The takeaways are simple: we must attempt to remove bias by a return to true journalism, not the soft journalism we have now. To do so takes time, research, and a return to seeking out original sources, far beyond what is online and can be found on Google.
The events at the Capitol Building last week are a simple example, and I’ve examined some of the facts here as an illustration.
True journalism takes money and time. Fake news sites have mastered the money part. The problem is that we feed the lies without understanding what we are doing. As a result, true journalism is dying. And it’s our fault.
Is social media a public platform? Is what they are doing by blocking and removing certain accounts censorship? Or is it, and potentially worse, suppressing truth and valid information? And then, to get down to the root of the problem, what is truth? How do we find and report it? For that, we need to talk about research. That means talking about original sources, journalism, and “fake news.”
One of the reasons is this: we have lost sight of what original sources are, how we find original sources and media, and how important those things are to journalism. Sensitivity warning here: this post will contain some curse words, but quite honestly, I think talking about this topic without them would be a heaping helping of “weak sauce.”
Bias of all Types
So this hits it right out of the gate, and if you have ever taken a worthwhile journalism course, you’ve probably had a very awkward discussion group about this topic. Here is the thing: we all have biases, based on where and how we grew up, our learning and where that happened, and even our racial background, religious background sexual orientation, and more.
How does a journalist get rid of bias? Well, first and foremost it is something you must fight against every day. Instead of looking at something through your own eyes, you have to look at what the facts tell you. As the famous Sherlock Holmes quote says, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”
In theory, one would examine all the facts before writing a story, and never, unless there is an absolute void of evidence, should you print a story containing assumptions unless you clearly label them. For example, before you write a story about the suicide (or murder made to look like a suicide) of a high-profile individual jailed on serious sex charges who may have dirt on high-profile individuals, you would need to gather as many of the facts as possible: photos, receipts, travel logs, verifying any alibis, tracing monies paid to potential assassins, etc.
You could write an article that outlines why the death seems suspicious and lay out those facts you have in evidence, allowing the reader to draw a conclusion of their own, but an ethical journalist would be very clear about the intent of the article, it should be designed to incite further investigation, and the writer must be careful with the language of the article to attempt to not present the facts in a certain light to influence reader conclusions, but instead leave them bare.
This involves two critical things: first, carefully crafting the language one uses. Secondly, finding the facts, and keeping them separate from conjecture and assumption. But where do you find the facts?
Research and Original Sources
When a company, an organization, or a government holds a press conference, it is generally for one reason: not to share the truth with the public, although that sometimes happening. It is to “spin” the story. A press conference is usually designed to give the press the bias the presenter wants them to print.
In other words, most press conferences are bullshit. Good reporters know it, and they go there to get someone to slip up answering a question, or often more importantly to get an on the record quote from someone in the organization, or even an off the record quote. Because even something said “off the record” can provide a clue the journalist can investigate to get to the facts.
Facts. Something you can prove with hard data or that you have received from an original, unbiased source. This usually requires some digging or personal interviews. Original sources are rarely found on the internet, unless they are behind a paywall or in a special, passworded area only accessible by certain people, usually not journalists. This is why in old movies, the journalist would often perform illegal searches, meet covertly with sources who did not want to be named (and the reason such sources are protected in most cases), and go to a variety of lengths to “get the story.”
The reason is simple. The real story is not on the surface. It is not released in a press conference or press release. It lies deeper, and to get to it takes research, tenacity, and often risk. The reporter is a detective of a different type. They are not trying to solve a crime, they are trying instead trying to expose what is really happening.
Unfortunately, the media has changed. No longer are there big advertising budgets that support an in-depth investigation that is truly unbiased, and that takes time. Being first with the story has become more important than facts obtained from original sources, and you often see the news “mirror” what another source is reporting.
Research and in-depth reporting takes time, and “breaking” a story in a few hours is generally not possible if it is done correctly. It may take days, weeks, and even months of investigation. While exercise is often neglected in today’s society, the one thing we are great at is jumping to conclusions.
A Quick Case Study
I have to admit that I got caught up in the social media frenzy surrounding the Capitol invasion/riots/protests, or whatever you want to call them. Was there a conspiracy there? What really happened?
I furiously scrolled Twitter, Facebook, and even the Parler (under a name not my own, to not reveal my sources) and several news and “fake news” sites. (More on those in a moment). Then someone commented the one thing that struck me on a single post:
“C’mon, do some research.”
I won’t reveal the political bent of this person or the angle they were taking, but a quick click on the link they had posted revealed they had little understanding of the term research. Not only was their source not an original one, but it was also at least three sources removed from an original one, and was clearly from a source not even hiding their bias behind the label of news media.
But I followed their advice anyway, and did some real research, reaching out to legitimate, original sources I either know personally, know through other connections I have as a freelancer and a few law enforcement connections in various agencies. No, I won’t give you names here: a journalist protects their sources, but they also HAVE them. Here is what I found with a quick investigation:
- The Capitol Police do appear to “allow” some protestors to pass through a certain section of the White House grounds. There were a few officers involved in this action, and from reliable, original sources, it appears they were ordered to stand aside.
- Who gave the order? Any guess at this time is speculation. I don’t have facts to support any suspicions I may have.
- Other Capitol Police do appear to oppose the protestors and redirect them to other areas. Why? I have no facts to say if they didn’t receive orders, didn’t follow them, or there may be a completely different reason they did not follow the same action pattern as others.
- Who was in the crowd? Antifa? BLM actors posing as Trump supporters? Or actual Trump supporters? This one was easier for me because I got lucky. One prominent protestor was from my home town. I recognized him personally, talked with him about doing some freelance work for his new company (now defunct, website taken down). I know for a fact he was a Trump supporter.
- This is what journalists often call a thread. When you find a factual thread, you pull on it to see where it leads. So I did. I found photos of other protestors, and in conjunction with other “internet amateurs” worked to identify a few of them. Understand that because of the power of Photoshop and other programs, including deep fakes, I used some software to determine the validity of photos using AI (It’s a program in beta. You can’t have it.) However, most of that work I left to experts who are much better at it than I am.
- The conclusion (based on facts in evidence) was that much of the crowd contained Trump supporters from various groups. Much of the crowd also remains unidentified: there certainly could be Antifa and BLM actors among them. In fact, some evidence suggests there may have been, but most is conjecture at this point. As more evidence comes to light (if it does) we can see where it fits.
- And finally, what of the crowd outside? There were nearly a million people in DC, and only a small percentage of them entered the Capitol Building. A poignant photo shows a large group standing behind velvet ropes intended to control crows without crossing them while others scaled walls. The facts show there were peaceful protestors and probably some people simply looking on as witnesses to history who were not involved in illegal activity at all.
Did Donald Trump incite the crowd, at least those that supported him? Well, this is the most difficult to “prove.” The reason is simple: his press conference was only hours before the events took place, but many individuals were already in Washington at the time of his remarks, and many had been there for a while (travel records prove this conclusively). His remarks may not have helped, but do we know for a FACT they were a trigger? No.
For that, we would need conclusive evidence from various groups, message boards, phone calls, texts, and other sources that the events were planned, and that some collusion had happened to “begin” events when Trump made his remarks. As much as many people would like for it to exist, if it does, it has not yet come to light.
From a true journalist standpoint, this is the only story we can accurately report: a large group stormed our nation’s capitol building. They got in much too easily considering the police presence. The group contained a large number of verified Trump supporters, but there may have been others present as well. There is no direct evidence that the President deliberately sparked the event, despite conjecture to the contrary.
Why Fake News?
So why the rush to judgment, and to print a story? Why fake news? I’ll let you in on yet another secret: most news now is not fake on purpose, but it can instead be chalked up to hasty and lazy journalism fueled by the desire to be “first” rather than “right.” Low budgets and pay, and the bias that is encouraged rather than squashed by editors is at least in part to blame.
In short, it’s bullshit. And the more we click on it, the more of this fake news we will get.
But there is deliberately fake news. It’s an industry all its own. Why? Money. Ad revenue. Absent print advertising that once sustained and even drove newspapers to do more, increasingly papers have turned to digital subscriptions and ad revenue to sustain them. And that is where deliberate fake news comes in.
Remember the Denver Guardian, the fake news site that “leaked” the story about Hillary having an FBI agent assassinated? The guy who created that site had several other fake news sites too. And he admitted it. With a staff of 25 creative writers, he made up headlines that people would click on, from politics to celebrities and sports stars. He cultivated fans and clicks and made a lot of money. How much? An average of $30K a month.
The Hillary story? That was a six-figure month for him. When Google pulled his add account (censorship and suppression of information over eight years ago now?) other advertisers lined up to offer him money to sponsor his sites, and he was back up and running, making money in a matter of days. When a site gets reported or taken down for being fake and impersonating real media, it’s not a big deal. He just buys another domain, creates another site, and baits people to click on it through social media. And it works. The acknowledged fake Hillary story was SHARED over a million times. Even with a generous estimate that only 1 in 10 readers will share a story they like, that means it was viewed and read 10 million times. (We don’t have real numbers. This is just conjecture based on averages).
Fake news, getting you to click on a story, is big money. You almost can’t blame the mainstream media for forsaking true journalism and trying the same type of tactics just to stay financially afloat.
What’s the Answer?
This is a long post, and the truth is, there isn’t a simple one. People must vet their journalistic sources, insist on fact-checking and interviews with original sources. Quick investigations are shit. Long investigations with several contributors are more likely to arrive at the truth and contain facts, not opinion.
People are the answer. Stop clicking on fantastical headlines and supporting those “news” sources that either sensationalize things to keep us reading or that offer a biased opinion over real news.
Part of the problem is the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.” We want to read about a crisis, not peace. The passive crowds in DC didn’t make the news because that is not exciting. The spiderman like guy climbing a wall, an officer beat with a fire extinguisher, and a protestor tazing himself in a sensitive area sell papers and earn clicks more than a peaceful group milling around DC, sharing their discontent in calm conversations.
We, the people who consume this type of news and we feed the monster. We make this kind of journalism the norm, even as we scream our distrust for the media. We claim to want the truth. But do we really?
Without facts in evidence, but with a wider observation, the answer appears to be “no.” We want news that entertains us, confirms our own biases and assumptions, and we’re willing to sacrifice the truth to get it.