How do we trust media sources in the 21st century?

This is a great question, and goes to the heart of a fundamental question with regards to “new media.”  “How do we know it’s the truth?” 

We don’t.  Skepticism ranges between those who believe everything they see, and radical skeptics who believe that our senses are always fooling us and we live in a mere dream-world. 

Finding truth in sources is no small task.  You’re asking yourself for a reason to believe in the source–a priori to the piece of news you’re actually digesting.  In the past, when it came to news, the actual messenger of that news became the standard by which we judged the veracity of a particular news item. 

As for normal, everyday folks, I think there are a number of criteria.  Primarily, I think most people take note of “how slick,” or visually perceived as being “professional,” the organization’s actual product is.  Far behind those patriotic graphics and well-dressed models/anchors lies the assumption that, “If they have so many resources at their disposal, and are headquartered in a skyscraper in New York City, they must be credible.”  There is a certain logic to this that could get you by in more innocent times.

The weakness to this standard is best illustrated in the previous example citing Jaysen Blair.  An individual speaks for the organization.  When one person was caught in wrongdoing, all the skyscrapers and circulation numbers could not help The Times escape the shame.  Yet, at the same time, the scandal did not actually change anything with the honest reporters who had been filing honest news.  Therefore, with the pace of our modern era, it occurs to me that the old way of vetting a source is on life-support, as it should be, and we are in a transition where most of the changes trend towards radical decentralization.

In my opinion, the answer is quite elegant (which sometimes leads me to believe I am right about it).  I approach it from a “signals theory” perspective.  In that model, truthful news is the “signal” and everything that defers away from “close-enough objectivity” is “noise.”  What the news consumer needs to be able to do is filter one from the other with enough reliability to be able to depend on the source.

In this case of a proposed source featuring an article by the brother of Pat Tillman, I believe that we can infer certain things about it while knowing nothing else about the source.  I think most would agree the potential problem here isn’t that Tillman may be lying about his thoughts over his brother’s death, but rather that someone “forged” Tillman’s identity in order to bring credibility to the article. 

How can we be reasonably sure that Tillman was the one who wrote the article?  Or, what would be a tip-off that this is a forgery?

I propose that the dialectic between the source and its critics in a general environment of free speech on the internet and in the public sphere is the most rational basis upon which to judge news sources.  I want to see both the source, and its criticism.  Those who would be critics of this article have argued on the basis that Tillman “isn’t patriotic” or something else that has no bearing on the truthfulness.  No one that I can find has challenged the article on a satisfactory basis, whereas you can bet that many researchers have a clear motivation to prove this source wrong. 

This is why I like Wiki, because I believe that “useable truth” (actionable intelligence?) can be found in the aggregate of criticisms and counter-criticisms of whatever is claimed.  This open “arena of ideas” is where most things begin before they are filtered down to us plebs in sound-bites. 

We are all our own news editors now.

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