On the Reliability of the “MSM”

(image via imgflip)

I often run across people who denounce the reliability of mainstream media (MSM). This seems to indicate a misunderstanding of markets. “The media” is not a single homogeneous entity but actually a rather crowded and competitive industry where the barrier to entry is lower than it’s ever been. Even if you examine just traditional media companies, where we have seen mergers between AOL and Time Warner as well as Viacom and CBS, the media industry’s HHI score (which measures an industry’s concentration versus its competitiveness) actually remains surprisingly stable within the moderately competitive zone.

Of course, if you are as old as me, you probably remember when there were only three television stations and the only newspaper you could access was the local one because there was no Internet. If then, you probably remember that you have to look beyond traditional media and include numerous smaller contributors — including bloggers such as myself. As a result, the media landscape is rather diverse. These days, anybody can write a blog post, record a podcast, upload a video, or tweet a tweet. If there was a viewpoint being excluded, that’s an under-served market niche that would be profitable to fill. Furthermore, the incentives of market competition to improve quality and lower price is exactly why capitalism won the Cold War.

I can’t decide which one of the front two has the shinier headddAAGHjfXqs#!.sd*qz&p… BALDNESS. IS. VERY. SEXY. INDEED.
Image via G-Mart Comics

Most importantly, the cost it would take to ensure everybody hushes up a conspiracy is prohibitively and ridiculously high. If some entity (be it Big Pharma, the military industrial complex, Bill Gates, the Kochs, or the Illuminati) attempted to pay off every single television station, newspaper, website, blogger, YouTuber, or Twitter personality to not report any evidence of their evil misdeeds, the price to convince just the last few holdouts would be astronomical because it would be a commitment to sit on what would be the scoop of the century — forever! Refusing the deal would be extremely lucrative, and accepting it means you can always alter the deal later, Darth Vader screwing over Lando style, because you basically have blackmail power. The only entities that can pull this off are governments with the power of military force behind them, such as in Russia or China. After all, there’s no need to shell out any extortion money when you can just throw dissidents in prison because there’s no First Amendment. And okay, either Professor X or Dr. Strange could also probably pull it off single-handedly. Or the Scarlet Witch. Or Thanos… okay, let me stop there because this could go on forever.

Interestingly, many of these complainers often share inaccurate or heavily partisan content from social media (e.g., Facebook and YouTube). Remember, when a product or service is free, odds are that you are actually the product. Someone else is probably paying for your attention or your personal data. This is true for both television and radio (selling your attention to advertisers) and social media (selling both your attention and your data to any number of entities). You might have noticed that television and social media outlets like YouTube and Facebook tend to provider less satisfying but more addictive content that pales compared to their paid alternatives like streaming services, newspapers, magazines, films, and books.1

Social media content in particular tends to be highly inaccurate because there is no mechanism for accountability. Yes, you often see a meme shared by a friend, but 1) people tend to share anything they agree with regardless of accuracy, and 2) social media shows you a specific tiny subset of all the numerous updates from all your friends and contacts, and their number one criteria is keeping you addicted, whether it be content that entertains, titillates, comforts, or outrages you.

Furthermore, anyone found to be sharing something false bears little cost because they can just delete the inaccurate post and/or act as if nothing ever happened. And forget tracking down who the heck created the meme, because usually you never have any idea (could you tell that the meme at the beginning of this post was from me?). And sure, social media companies might take such content down, but as controversial content increases engagement, they face strong incentives against doing so (and their users also inevitably complain about it). As such, I strongly, strongly recommend against getting your news from social media.

(image from Pew Research)

Both television and social media content also tend to be sensationalist (violence and fires attract more eyeballs than peaceful protests), but television is particularly problematic because it is much more difficult for journalists to be objective in video than in the written form.

If my reasoning doesn’t convince you, just look at the data from Pew Research in the graph to the left. Biased media sources and most social media content are essentially advertisements and propaganda, often from companies doing viral marketing, sometimes from political parties that already have too much power, and occasionally even from foreign countries seeking to sow dissension and chaos. That’s the problem when content has no name behind it. As such, social media is probably not worth very much of your time just like watching television commercials or sitting through a presentation about condo time shares is really not worth your time — unless you just really enjoy the experience of being sold to (in which case, please leave your phone number and email in the comments!).

In terms of which media sources are worth your time, there are numerous. Media bias has been a core issue of mine for a few years now, largely due to various attacks by politicians upon journalism as well as the rising prevalence of misinformation on social media. After years of searching, the source of media bias ratings that has most won my trust is Media Bias / Fact Check (MB/FC). I have found them to be more accurate and comprehensive than Ad Fontes Media and AllSides, and you can read more of what I have to say about them here. If you’re aware of a better resource, please let me know!

So, a great place to start is MB/FC’s very lengthy list of least-biased sources. Alas, MB/FC doesn’t have as fancy graphics as the others, but here’s Ad Fontes Media’s chart, which shows the most reliable sources near the top (with original reporting higher than analysis, perhaps due to the subjectivity involved in the latter) and the least biased sources near the middle between the left and right sides:

(image from Ad Fontes Media)

And if you don’t want to rely upon a third party and search on your own, some key things to pay attention to are whether they are transparent with their ownership and funding, how well they balance story selection (do they criticize politicians from only one party or both?), whether their reporting uses loaded and/or sensationalist language versus neutral wording, how they handle corrections, how they defend their reputation for factual accuracy, and whether they allow comments or publish letters to the editor.

And one very important factor is where they get their funding. If it’s mostly from advertisements or selling user data, that means they are really working for someone else other than the reader. So, you definitely want to choose sources that gets at least a significant portion of their revenues from their audience, such as via subscriptions. And if you cannot tell how they make their money, turn and run. Run very, very fast and very, very far away.

The ones I rely upon are The Economist, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal (although I largely ignore their opinion section and will never forgive them for their horrible customer service for all the times I received soggy papers), The Dispatch, Reuters2, the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Affairs, George Friedman’s Geopolitical Futures, the Associated Press (AP), and Reason (the magazine). Ideally, you will want more than one to see how an issue is covered from multiple angles and perspectives. And lastly, don’t rely on an outlet’s website, as this opens you up to tactics like clickbait headlines and algorithms tailored to your behavior to keep you on the site much like social media uses. Instead, try to read their print version (e.g., PDF as in WSJ, through a viewer like FT) more likely to be aimed for a broad audience. This is kind of the news outlet equivalent of forcing a social media platform to show you content in chronological order rather than what its algorithm has learned will keep you addicted.

Now, to see if you’ve been paying attention, please tell me who you should trust for health advice? A meme on social media, your doctor, someone who watched a doctor’s video posted on YouTube, or my beloved and hapless New York Mets?

Disclosure, the author owns shares of Google, the owner of YouTube.

Reposted with from Quora with major edits.

1. AP, Reuters, and also JSTOR are the rare exceptions that have institutional subscribers and offer a limited version of their quality services for free.

2. The only reason I rely upon Reuters more than AP is because Reuters comes bundled with the market app supplied by my employer.

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