Who do you believe?
I got a message from an old friend a couple of days ago, asking me, as a former reporter, that question. What were the most reliable sources of news? He didn’t have to tell me why he was asking – I knew, and it made me sad.
I remember a time when most media were trusted.
On TV, it was the big three American stations, ABC, CBS and NBC, while in Canada, it was CBC nationally and BCTV provincially. I was pretty young when cable came along, pulling open the curtain to a big, new, bright world dominated by the U.S.
In print, the Globe and Mail was (and continues to be, I believe) the gold standard and the Canadian Press fed most papers, including the Prince Rupert Daily News, where I worked. It was always exciting to get one of my stories picked up on the CP wire.
I didn’t experience being a writer for a paper with an agenda for too long, as the clear shift to a right-wing bias at the Daily didn’t happen until my latter years in the mid-late 90s. I recall being asked to write an editorial condemning local fisherman for blockading the Alaska ferry and I refused, even under threat of firing. That didn’t mean I agreed with the fishermen’s actions but, after their concerns had been ignored by Ottawa for so long, I wasn’t going to condemn them either.
Today, well, the number of media outlets with agendas far outnumber those without. There are too many, particularly online, to name but they are very easy to spot: they have provocative names, like Rebel Media and The Drudge Report. These extreme sites are the new porn.
In Canada, the right wing owns most of the big media, including the Sun chain, The National Post and, in my neck of the woods, Black Press. Post Media, which has 140 outlets in print and online, is almost entirely American owned. So maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on the CBC for leaning left, although theirs is also a self-preservation battle as Conservatives have long wanted the CBC (at the least, TV) taken off of the public teat. The aforementioned Globe and Mail also leans Liberal.
These are incredibly polarizing times, in no small part due to the rise of Trumpism and the term “fake news,” which refers to any news that is critical of or contradicts him or his government. It has certainly made elections in the U.S. more colorful. News outlets choose sides, which makes the viewing livelier but too outrageous for my liking. It’s hard to take the pundits seriously. Certainly, Canada has its share of agenda news agencies but, as in most things we share with the U.S., we will always be America-lite – which is a good thing.
All of that said, while most media may follow political lines editorially, most report with reasonable fairness. And it is that message I gave to my friend.
Avoid the extreme outlets, that are hard right or left. Those are for people with blinders, whom desperately want their prejudices confirmed. It’s lazy and self-indulgent. We all need to challenge our beliefs. There are few, if any, absolute truths in human systems.
Focus on news stories or features more than editorials. There’s a reason that the big TV outlets and major newspapers, the “mainstream” media, are more read. They want more people to follow them, to subscribe to them, and for that to happen, they need to be believed by more people. Do they still editorialize? Yes. But, while CNN may often editorialize against Trump, their news product still cites sources from both sides.
Even Fox News, which is the most unabashedly biased of the networks, leaves most of the truth-bending to its talking heads and some of them, to their credit, have challenged Trump narratives lately to the point that he is condemning them now and pushing alternative outlets.
It’s the same in Canada. The CBC may lean left and The National Post may lean right but the stories are still written by real, working journalists that still value the craft’s core principles of balance (portraying both sides) and attribution (having people with close knowledge or authority speak to it).
My personal preference is actual, hard-copy reputable newspapers with an online presence, which is most of them. A subscription is pretty cheap – certainly cheaper than picking up a physical copy, which is impossible where I live anyway. I subscribe to the Washington Post for U.S. and world news, and the Globe and Mail for Canadian content. Of course, you can find good sources on the free MSN online, but check the sources as they are hugely varied. Names like Canadian Press, Associated Press, and Reuters are highly trustworthy.
Bottom line: don’t waste your time on the blatantly biased. Read a lot - so few of us do it enough anymore. Liberals are not communists. Conservatives are not Nazis. The truth is out there. If you believe you are a fair and kind person, care enough to find it.