Looking Askance at Media
[ Here’s another unintended consequence of the pandemic: an awakening to the untrustworthiness of a media landscape that has long been on a path to dubious reliability. The author is a friend. — ed. ]
Covid has changed my view of written information about current events.
Long ago (in the 1980s, say) I believed that traditional publications — newspapers, journals, books, broadcast network TV — did a pretty good job of presenting information accurately, with only occasional major errors. They did OK at separating facts from opinions. There were always fringe publications, but it was easy enough to identify those.
Media polarization really got going after Reagan killed the Fairness Doctrine, and accelerated in the early 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” It has kept on getting worse in the years since, with deliberate misinformation added to the mix. Meanwhile the rise of the Internet has steadily eroded the cost of publishing, to the point that it was essentially free by the 2010s. I didn’t register how unreliable available media had gotten until the pandemic threw the whole landscape into sharp relief.
Starting at the end of 2019, Covid was brand new. No one knew anything about it. There were lots of “facts” that it turned out later were wrong. For example: if you didn’t have a high fever, you didn’t have Covid. Another was that you couldn’t have Covid if you didn’t have some symptoms. From direct personal experience, I learned in April 2020 that both of those are wrong. As I dealt with medical experts about infected people in my family, for nearly every question I asked, the answer was “we don’t know” — and, I should point out, at the time, that was the correct answer.
The combination of a new disease that was not at all understood, and a wide-open, completely unmoderated publishing environment (the Internet) led to a huge amount of misinformation. A lot of the information about Covid on the Internet sounded reasonable and plausible. But early on, most of it was wrong. In the good cases, it was wrong because no one knew better. In the bad cases, it was wrong because people were purposely providing incorrect information for their personal entertainment or financial benefit or political gain or …?
So the past year has led me to question pretty much all information I get, in any form. I want to know about the author. I want to know about the publisher. I want to know their recent history. I want to know who trusts them and who doesn’t. (For me, trust is transitive — if someone I trust trusts someone else, I’ll trust them too.) All of this has made learning so much more work for me. I now have to work really hard to separate true facts from opinions from deliberately false information.
I don’t know when or if I will again be able to trust what I read without first applying a long dose of withering skepticism.
Yes, so true for many of us, I think. Thank you for all your excellent posts — great to read information from you that I can trust!
Thank you Dagmar! Yours is a fine meta-commentary on exactly the point the author is making. I’m just this guy with a website, publishing information — no large, well-resourced institution stands behind me assuring the quality or veracity of what I put out there. It’s just me, and because you know me you have more opportunity than most to judge the quality of the information here.
Since today’s blog post has some “meta” content, I will now share that after months of casual visits I have FINALLY recognized the photo at the top of this group blog. (It’s worrying that it took a national holiday for my brain to be clear enough to make the connection.)
It perfectly illustrates your title / theme (no surprise) and I do not have the link available but my deep brain retrieval is confident that this is a photo of:
– The family whose video went viral after one parent’s BBC TV appearance (commenting on political developments in Asia) featured the other three family members appearing on camera, one after the other, in a charming-funny “better than scripted” way
– Which was a perfect illustration of “transitions required by our common pandemic”
– Which brought out the unconscious bias (=racism ) of many of us who assumed the second parent was a nanny / babysitter
– Et cetera
[Also on holiday from grammar, parallel structure for bullets, but not footnotes]
This blog’s picture has HAUNTED me every time I visit (who are they? why THAT picture? for a long time I assumed it was one of the authors’ families; also, why is it blurry?) and here is what I particularly like about it now that I have remembered where I last saw it:
– This is actually very clear for a screen grab from a video
– And it’s DEFINITELY not from the original incident but from the follow up interview, which I also watched, in which the whole family dressed up to discuss the incident (& its viralness) with the BBC, in response to viewer interest
– So it’s perfect for the BLOG because it represents a household “grappling, trying to adjust,” which is the theme here (rather than the shocks themselves being the theme, excellent work Keith and collaborators!)
– And it also feels carefully curated because you have chosen the part of the follow up interview where the elder child is grabbing Dad’s head (=representing how quarantine distractions affect thought) and Mom seems to be trying to explain something to the BBC person while staying calm (=representing the extra emotional labor of taking care of kids while the other parent “works” AND the extra labor required by people of color coping with biased culture) and perhaps even suppressing a laugh; it’s all happening now
Ouch, I escalated that quickly. To sum up: this photo exemplifies the care with which you always publish, including multiple nuances for those who can take the time. Many many thanks!
 While I am mentioning race, here is Lily Zheng’s excellent To “Dismantle Anti-Asian Racism, We Must Understand Its Roots” (HBR):
Excellent Jules, thanks for being, as always, my ideal reader!
I almost hate to mention after all this time that if you hover your mouse over the top photo, the tooltip (CSS title) gives the big reveal about Prof. Kelly and his family.
And yes, you have identified in your typical bullseye fashion almost all of the thought that went into the selection of that photo.
In Keith I trust.
Aww thanks Sis!