Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to Develop a Healthy Cynicism of the Media

My last several posts have contained strong undercurrents of deep cynicism and distrust of the media. Just in case you didn't notice.

I believe this cynicism is healthy--and adopting it as a permanent mindset is easy: all you have to do is two things:

1) Read a few general media articles about subjects in which you have advanced technical knowledge.
2) Laugh at the staggering inaccuracies.

Try it. Look for an article on your specific area of expertise in any newspaper or general magazine. See how the subject matter is grievously oversimplified. See how important facts and issues are ignored, misstated or rendered misleadingly. And see how everything is written in a convincing, compelling and authoritative tone.

That tone is the key. When you see this tone in articles where you don't have expertise, your instinct is to assume the writer deserves authority. Hey, it's the newspaper--they're supposed to know these things.

However, once you've read a few articles where you know the subject matter far better than the writer--and where you see obvious mistakes and oversights--this authoritative tone becomes hilarious. And sad.

Now, put yourself in the place of a non-expert reading that same article. He believes he's learning from an authoritative source, but what he's really learning is a mixture of facts and errors that he will mistake for knowledge.

What he's learning is reducing his knowledge, not augmenting it. But he'll never know.