Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Evaluating and Selecting News Sources, Especially in the Internet Age.

December 30, 2014

[This is slightly redacted copy of notes from a lecture I gave on April 4, 2013 to a group of researchers/analysts who write for theTrumpet.com. I am publishing it here by request of some Redditors on /r/geopolitics. Without the slide show, it is not as compelling, but most of the info still makes sense.—Jeremiah Jacques]

Take a look at these three headlines:

“Obama Begins Inauguration Festivities With Ceremonial Drone Flyover”

“Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad To Obama.”

“Kim Jong-Un Named Sexiest Man Alive For 2012”

Those are silly, right? They are obviously satirical headlines from the always-provocative Onion News.

It’s satire, and the articles they write are totally fictitious. Yet, major news sources—I mean news giants—fell for all three of those stores. The last one prompted the 10th largest newspaper in the world, China’s People’s Daily, to publish a 55-page write-up chock full of photos of the rugged, chiseled leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

Every year mainstream news sources continue to stumble across Onion stories and believe them to be legitimate… and it’s a huge embarrassment for those who are duped.

I don’t think that any of us fall for Onion “news,” but we do need to be aware of the biases, the agendas, the weaknesses, and flat-out deceit that many publications are prone to.

Back in 1,000 BC, King Solomon said, “of making many books there is no end.” And that was before Guttenberg invented the printing press, and long before Al Gore invented the Internet!

In this astounding age of knowledge explosion, pretty much anyone can get free a WordPress or Tumblr account, come up with a fetching name, and call themselves a “news source.” There are torrents of information out there. It was awareness of that deluge that prompted Mitch Kapor to famously say, “getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”

The 24-hour internet news cycle gives us instant access to news all over the globe. We can find news produced by non-traditional sources such as Internet news agencies that represent minority perspectives.

We can zip over to Google translate and get the general gist of news written in any language from any country.

We can even find news produced by citizen journalists.

With all these choices, come new challenges. With news from distinct perspectives so easily accessible, how do we ensure that the news we find is not just telling us what we want to hear?

How do we achieve balance in the contemporary news environment?

How do you know if an article is telling the full story?

Even for well-established, vetted, mainstream sources, biases, mistakes, and agendas are the rule, rather than the exception.

So, today, let’s discuss how to evaluate and select news sources, especially in this internet age.

Information and knowledge are powerful tools. Wielding them properly is a heavy responsibility, especially for those writing news. We can do great good with these tools. Or, we can cause great damage and present stumbling blocks if improperly used. Even truth, if presented in the wrong way or wrong time can be damaging.

Follow the Money

In evaluating news sources, the “follow the money rule” is always helpful. Where do the funds to produce the news for that source come from? Knowing that can tell you a lot about the perspective which underlies the news stories. Will a media outlet owned by Disney (such as ABC) do an objective story about the Disney company or its products? Maybe, but it’s unlikely. ABC generally avoids all real criticism of Disney and its products because Disney funds them.

Finding out who owns or funds a certain publication can take some digging, but it can help you understand a publication’s slant, and help you to be on guard for its biases.

The very choice of what to focus on in news stories, and which stories to stay quiet about, reveals the bias of the producer. … Think about the American Mainstream media’s coverage of the “Fast and Furious” story. The Solyndra story. The Benghazi embarrassment. The U.S.’s mainstream liberal media very often will systematically suppress news stories that could injure the ruling administration. The reason why goes back to their funding.

The area where the question of money is perhaps most pertinent for us is with State-owned or state-funded news sources.

 

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 2.40.41 PMState media or state-owned media is media for mass communication, which is ultimately controlled and/or funded by a certain country. These news outlets may be the only media outlet in the country, as is the case in North Korea, Burma, and Laos. Or they may exist in competition with privately controlled media, as is the case in China, Iran, Russia, Qatar, etc.

The CONTENT produced by state-owned media is usually quite prescriptive—telling the audience what to think—especially since it’s under no pressure to attract high ratings or generate advertising revenue (the way a private company would be).

Within countries that have high levels of government interference in the media (North Korea, Iran, China, Russia), the state press is often used for propaganda purposes:

  • To promote the ruling government in a favorable light,
  • To act as a mouthpiece to advocate a regime’s ideology.
  • To vilify opposition to the government (whether that’s domestic opposition, or opposition from other countries).

Generally, state ownership of the media is found in poor, autocratic non-democratic countries with highly interventionist governments. And these governments usually have some interest in controlling the flow of information.

If a State-owned news agency —like RT (Russia Today), Xinhua or Fars —is announcing something on behalf of the Russian, Chinese, or Iranian government, there would be little question of the credibility. But the important thing is to remember that the rulers of those nations are always pulling the strings behind the scenes for these publications. I still use these sources from time to time, but if I take a fact from one of them, I try to always s write “from the state-owned new site RT” or something like that – as a flag to readers to take anything they say with a grain of salt.

The coverage for state-owned sites can be accurate, but you also have to look at what they do not report on. These publications are generally heavily censored, so you won’t find, for example, any anti-China stories on Xinhua, or any anti-Iran articles on Fars.

RUSSIA TODAY

One of Putin’s former advisers called RT “the best Russian propaganda machine targeted at the outside world.” The Guardian described one of RT’s campaigns as an “ambitious attempt to create a new post-Soviet global propaganda empire.”

Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera claims that it is editorially independent, though much of its funding comes from the Qatar government. In 2010, U.S. Department of State internal communications, released by WikiLeaks, showed that the Qatar government manipulates Al Jazeera coverage to suit political interests. Anyone familiar with their reporting knows that while it is professional and generally credible, it is usually has a pro-Islamic tinge.

Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)— The KCNA published a story a couple of months ago about a unicorn lair that Korean archaeologists found in Pyongyang. This was a red flag to lots of analysts because UNICORNS ARE VERY RARE.

Of course, they actually don’t exists at all.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 2.41.18 PMThe KCNA is an extreme, (as are most examples from North Korea)…but it demonstrates the dangers of State-owned News agencies.

As the sole news agency of North Korea, KCNA daily reports news for ALL the North Korean news organizations including newspapers, radio and television broadcasts within the country…

It reports only good news about the country, which is intended to delude its people into thinking they live in the only good nation on the planet. And also in order to project a positive image abroad, so there’s never really mention of the oppression and rampant starvation… Only the unicorns, and the wisdom of their supreme leaders. Some of the KCNA’s coverage is legitimate, but stories like this one reveal that it is first and foremost a ludicrous propaganda machine.

When we are using state-owned or state-funded news sources, we have to use them with an extra measure of caution.

Journalistic Integrity

Another thing to consider with privately owned publications (back in the free world) is its degree of journalistic integrity.

There is a three-level continuum of journalistic seriousness, running from up-market sources all the way to sensationalist or “yellow” publications.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 2.45.56 PM

(1) Yellow journalism is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news, and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. A lot of these are the publications you see in the grocery store checkout line, that have the headlines in 92-point font, talking about celebrities who got fat, or got divorced, or adopted an alien baby… that kind of thing.

I don’t think any of us would be tempted to base an analysis on an article from the National Inquirer or World Weekly News, but there are lots of right-wing conspiracy theorist sources that are every bit as sensationalist, and usually much more difficult to identify as Sensationalist.

These are often deliberately obtuse, appealing to emotions, intentionally controversial, intentionally omitting facts, and acting to obtain attention.

New York Post is a legitimate publication, but it panders. It is sensationalist. It recently stirred up controversy for publishing picture of a man pushed in front of a train, just before he was killed.

(2) Middle-market sources constitute the second level on the continuum. They attempt to cater to readers who want some entertainment but also coverage of important news events.

Examples include the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail and Daily Express. And in the U.S., the New York Daily News, USA Today, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

(3) Upmarket newspapers, the third level, generally cover hard news. These are for people who are fairly serious about the news they consume.

POLITICAL SPECTRUM

Another consideration for any publication or news source is its political or ideological slant.

Most mainstream media in the Western World leans to the left, toward liberalism. Some lean toward the right, and we have to be mindful of where a given source falls on this continuum.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 2.46.06 PM

InfoWars

Infowars is an example of a news source that is right-wing, but is all the way on the left of the previous spectrum (sensationalist journalism). There is some good reporting there from time to time, but so much of it is just built on speculation that its credibility is negligible.

The 9/11 Test

One test I use for non-mainstream news sites is to determine whether or not the publishers believe that the 9/11 attack was an inside job by the U.S. government. If they do, then they’re obviously bonkers.

Infowars, which I mentioned above, is an example of a right-wing source that fails the test. But there are lots of radical leftists, like Michael Moore for example, that also fail it.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 2.44.56 PM

It’s a curious theory because it started out on the political left but has broadened into a no-man’s land, where extreme left meets extreme right—fusing radical leftist 1960’s-Countercultural-distrust with the far right don’t-tread-on-me distrust.

The main reason I mention this is because among our readers, we have some conspiracy theorists. A mind that is on the far right can be every bit as delusional as one on the far left. (I once encountered a source saying the moon now orbiting earth is not the original moon, but a replacement moon that NASA built after they accidentally blew up the original moon). It’s a lot of wasted effort, a lot of embarrassing deception, and it can get really sad, once a person delves into these extremes of paranoia.

A poll by Public Policy Polling found that 28% of American voters believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government. 6% think Osama bin Laden is still alive. 21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell in 1947. 7% of voters think the moon landing was fake.

So, we just have to remember that a fair number of people gravitate to bizarre theories, and when we quote from or link to a certain website, it will be viewed by some readers as an endorsement by our publication of that website. By our actions, we are communicating to some readers that we trust this source and think that they report the news in a relatively honest way.

World Socialist Web Site (WSWS):

One other news source that fails the 9/11 test is World Socialist Website. This is an interesting source because, even though the writers are linked with a bunch of crazy ultra leftists, they’re good at watching and reporting on the rise of Germany.

It is an unashamedly Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyite source, and has a strong socialist bias, but if you need coverage about what they call the “capitalists pigs” of Imperial Germany, then it can be pretty valuable. We just have to anticipate the socialist prism that they view everything through, and not be corrupted by it.

Wikipedia Test

Another test I use sometimes is the Wikipedia Test.

This is mostly helpful with newer publications from African and Middle Eastern nations. Some of these sources are legitimate and very useful, but others are not. I remember there was one article that quoted Russian officials talking about something pretty monumental (I don’t remember what anymore). We were surprised that no other news organizations had picked up on the quote. We tried to get to the bottom of it, and it turned out the newspaper had copied the entire article from a crazy conspiracy theory blog.

So, a simple test to conduct on a news source that you have never heard of before is to go to Wikipedia, and look them up. If they don’t have a Wikipedia entry, then they’re probably a small weird site that cannot be trusted.

If they do have a Wikipedia entry, it certainly doesn’t mean they are trustworthy, but it can probably tell you a bit about who they are in order to understand their biases.

The Google Test

That brings me to a very simple tool we can use when evaluating any somewhat dubious story… and that is the Google Test.

I quoted the wise Solomon above, and here’s another bit of wisdom he authored: “In a multitude of counsel, there is safety.”

If a story or a source looks doubtful, do a quick search to see who else has written about it. If you can gather independently obtained material from multiple reliable sources, then you’ve got a story. And it’s good whenever possible to cite these sources to make our articles more powerful.

If only one source has written about a news event, maybe it’s just a brand new development, but approach it with care. use Twitter to see who else is discussing it. Consult with the Fact Checkers if you’d like help ascertaining the veracity, and we will be happy to help.

The Google test will help you see if an article is credible, and it will also help you to buttress your article with more authoritative and credible voices.

But for some stories, a multitude of sources will not be available… That brings me to….

German-Foreign-Policy.com

German-Foreign-Policy,com is an incredibly useful site. It’s so mysterious—enshrouded in a cloak of secrecy. It is inherently leftist and critical of Germany’s rise… Its mission is to alert the world to the “hegemonial tactics and strategies of the united Germany.”

It really fulfills this mission.

It’s interesting that some of the sites we use are so left-leaning, yet they have a mission similar to the Trumpet…. I take solace in knowing that the Trumpet doesn’t have loyalty to any given side. We know that we are an apolitical or a metapolitical publication. But there’s something also potentially dangerous about groping for whatever meets what we are looking for.

But we don’t have to be afraid about what some might call groping around for what we already know is true… This really gets at the heart of the Trumpet’s unique analysis…

ZeroHedge

ZeroHedge has a range of economic, market, banking, and political news and opinions. It often publishes very good charts and graphs. It publishes items from multiple sources concerning US, UK, Europe, China, and other areas. Some pieces are too technical for general use, but many of them are very clear and valuable.

We must approach it with caution, though, because of its robust enthusiasm for the Austrian school of economic thought, and for its anti-Israel bias.

World Net Daily

WND: Liberals call it “Conspiracy theorist central,” and usually that’s a fair assessment. We should not use this site in normal circumstances.

World Net Daily sometimes gets mired in verbosity concerning marginal topics that cannot be ‘proven’ to the satisfaction of mainstream readers. (Example: Mr. Obama’s birth records).

Nevertheless, it can be a good starting point, but I don’t think it is wise for us to link to WND or to quote from them because of the conspiratorial nature of the analysis.

One thing to remember, as a side note, is that some conspiracy ‘theories’ are true, or contain elements of truth. But if the target audience does not find the source or the information credible it is of little use. As I mentioned earlier, using, and citing sources with extreme views can undermine the credibility of the publisher and it can create problems for readers. Mr. Armstrong’s advice about the ‘trunk of the tree’ applies to this.

DEBKA

Debka is an Israeli source that has useful articles about Israel, Mideast, Iran, and related issues. They have been known to over-hype’ some issues, and their speculations have been incorrect from time to time. But it is generally a valuable source.

Sources Considered to be more ‘Mainstream’

So, that all deals with assessing the merits and credibility of fringier, more obscure sources. Now, I want to push through to more mainstream sources. Most of these will be on that UPMARKET portion of that first spectrum (and that’s in your handout there, too)

The Christina Science Monitor

Despite its name, the Monitor is not a religious-themed paper, and it does not promote the doctrine of its patron church (Church of Christ, Scientist). It does include one daily religious article, but the rest of the reporting and analysis does not, in my evaluation, have a religious leaning. It is a solid source, and I recommend it.

The Telegraph

 

The Telegraph is among the finest sources you’ll find for hard news and views from and about the UK, Europe, Middle East and the world. They, like every site, have their own philosophy and editorial viewpoints.

But it is a solid and valuable source. Our editor in chief has singled the Telegraph out as one of his favorite publications to learn news from.

USA TODAY

USA Today is comprised mostly of syndicated, generic stories from news agencies. There is very little analysis. It leans toward the middle market. The target audience is people without any deep understanding of news. You could call it the “6 o’Clock News” equivalent of a newspaper. I’d rather read an ideologically bent publication, something with strong ideological leanings like the New York Times… You know that the Times will at least have to withstand the scrutiny of well-educated people.

USA today, by contrast, seems catered to those saying “Hey look, I get a free newspaper with my continental breakfast today! That’s cool! Look here… there’s a squirrel that can water ski in Florida” It’s audience has little concern for what they’re fed.

The USA Today carries plenty of fine stories, but I wouldn’t go there for analysis.

Fox News

Fox News is less “conservative” than it is “republican.” There is a great stigma associated with it among many people. Many who consider themselves moderate or liberal get instantly bristled by it. Beware of the way people recoil away when if we cite it. We should almost always try to balance it out with another source. If we quote it alone, people will assume an ideological slant.

Also, Fox News is made up of about 2/3 Catholic correspondents and producers, although those are American Catholics, (which are sort of disowned by the hardline European ilk of Roman Catholics). But, if we “follow the money,” we still have to be aware of the overarching, pro-Vatican slant.

Financial Times

The Financial Times has a slight slant to the political left, but it is a highly credible source. The focus is mostly on Europe and on Economy. It has some of the best editorial content available on the planet.

New York Times 

Once you filter out the leftist bilge, and just look at the journalistic quality, the NYT is an exceptional news source. The have a whole cast of Pulitzer prize-winning journalists, and the writing is just phenomenal.

If a NYT article is on a subject prone to liberal distortion, such as National Health Care, Gun Control, Abortion, Homosexual “Marriage, then it is generally not a good source to use.

But, if it’s about something like the Syrian crises, where bipartisanship doesn’t really factor in, it’s great. The NYT is a lot like NPR. (National Public Radio)… It has a blatant Leftist agenda, but really clear and sound analysis when it comes to subjects that are not prone to political distortion.

Wall Street Journal

The WSJ leans slightly to the right, but it’s one of the finest Newspapers on the planet. As is the case with the FT and NYT, it is so reputable and so professional that it would never be questioned as a news source by liberals or conservatives… (unlike FOX News (questioned by liberals) or Huffington Post (questioned by conservatives).

One Final Source

Before discussing one final source, I want to remind you of the “FOLLOW THE MONEY” consideration mentioned earlier.

One of the main pitfalls of web-based publications is that—unlike traditional newspapers which need large circulations to operate profitably—websites often serve small audiences, whose members have similar interests and/or attitudes. They can afford to be less balanced in the information they provide. So we need to be careful not to only visit sites that repeat what we already think. (Discussion of confirmation bias).

This is a key way to screen your news: Does this publication have a big economic stake in being credible?

If the publication is discovered to be peddling weird conspiracy theories without backing, do they have much to lose? Consider the Debka file for example. Their audience doesn’t necessarily want hard cold facts as much as they want something that will support their beliefs.

For a source as ideologically biased as the NYT, if they get facts wrong, it is a devastating blow to their credibility. So it means the NYT’s facts are very solid. They know that they are being tyrannically scrutinized by the political right, so they have to be above reproach when it comes to factually credible.

Stratfor

Stratfor is great because —if you FOLLOW THE MONEY—then you see that they have a big economic stake in their predictions coming true. They don’t care about ideology. They are not being funded by any government or company, but just by subscribers who need to know what will happen in the world (for purposes of investment, security, journalism, and so on). So Stratfor wants to be a source that analysts point to as saying they accurately predict the future. That’s where their dollars come from.

They are human, so there are some biases, but their bread and butter is getting facts right, and being a neutral observer. They don’t editorialize. They don’t judge, saying this is good or bad. They just say, in the light of history (and/or geography), this is how things usually happen.

If there is any bias in Stratfor, it is for the importance of geography (which is unlike any other publication I know of).

Our editor in chief has said that Stratfor is the most valuable modern news source Trumpet writers can use…

Spiritual Tools, and the TAKEAWAY

News collection and interpretation can be a little bit like Bible study: “Here a little, there a little. . . . .”   All of the relevant pieces have to be collected and fitted together properly. In Proverbs 18:17, King Solomon said “The first to state his case seems right, until his opponent begins to cross-examine him.”

So, we have to beware the sound of one hand clapping, and make sure we hear both sides.

We have to remember that our thinking is conditioned and colored by our culture and upbringing. We should work to expand our scope, both geographically—so that we see the whole world and the whole universe—and chronologically—so that we see all the way back into pre-history with just the Word and God, and all the way forward into post-prophecy, during that time of endless expansion of God’s government and family. If we strive vigilantly to expand our scope both geographically and chronologically, we will cultivate a global, even a universe vision. That’s what we need for proper Trumpet analysis.

 

TAKEAWAY: Sources and articles must be evaluated on an individual basis to ensure the accuracy of information is being spread. (And it all has to be viewed prayerfully through lens of prophecy). … If we will do this, can be sure that we are drinking from that gushing fire hydrant of information in a productive way.

I’d like to end with a quote by Benjamin Franklin that I found on the internet, which really demonstrates what we’re up against.

 

“The greatest thing about the internet is that you can quote something and just totally make up the source.” ~Benjamin Franklin

I Like Short Shorts (Shameless Promotion #2)

July 16, 2011
In 2002, I became obsessed with short shorts, and my love for them has only intensified since then.

“Short shorts” is, of course, an affectionate nickname for the odd short story genre invented by Steve Moss of the New Times Magazine, which limits a story to a maximum of 55 words.

These are actual basketball uniforms that Ambassador College (Big Sandy) used in the 70s.

WRONG KIND OF SHORT SHORTS: Steve Hercus & friends prepare for the HWA College "Throwback" B-ball game of '09

___

In 1987, Moss began an annual contest for short shorts and it has since inspired everyone from inmates to elementary school classes, and from professional writers to foreigners learning to speak English to take up their pens. The winning selections are printed in the magazine’s annual 55 Fiction cover story. Back in 2002, New Times received “thousands of tiny tales that poured in…from as far off as Portugal, Malaysia, Japan, and even Iran”. And among these was one I wrote which the judges selected to be among the 16 winners that year.

Here it is:

ALEX AND ADAM

Alex, an aged almsman, articulated an afterthought.

“Always address agnostics amiably and answer atheists affectionately.”

Adam, another aged almsman, addressed Alex’s absurd aphorism, asking, “And after an apocalypse?”

Alex alluringly assumed an agreeable air and answered Adam: “Apocalypse and afflatus are amazingly abstract areas … affection and amiability accomplish ample acquiescence and alleviate anger.”

Adam agreed.

Jeremiah Jacques

Asheville, NC

I have a Google news alert set up for my name  (Pretty vain, I know, but don’t you have one for your name too? …You really don’t?  Man. I’m lame), and I’m surprised how often this is republished on other webpages (it’s up to 30 or so).

Anyway, there are so many of these short shorts that New Times  has published a few books full of them, and the books are even translated into other languages.

 

 

 

And here are a few of my favorites from over the years:

SAY SOMETHING

The subway lurched, throwing her into his arms.

He’s strong, protective, loving, she thought. We’ll marry at a seaside resort and have four beautiful children.

He lifted her up and smiled. I’ll always be faithful. When we’re old, we’ll travel the world together.

The train slowed. She moved to the door.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Chris Orcutt

Mount Vernon, NY

FINAL WITNESS

Pandemonium erupted. The next witness was walking through the courtroom doors.

“Order in the court!” the judge bellowed, cracking his gavel.

All eyes focused on Tommy, who was sitting on the stand, his mouth open in shock.

It was quite obvious now who’d murdered his wife.

No one.

                                                                                    Candice C. Mutschler


Don’t they make for a satisfying read? They’re so short, but still contain a clear beginning, middle, and end.

The deadline for the 2011 contest just passed, but Moss and the others at New Times accept submissions year round. Send or deliver your micro-masterpieces (in 55 words or less) to the New Times office at 1010 Marsh St. in San Luis Obispo, CA, 93401.

Or e-mail your short shorts to 55fiction@newtimesslo.com.

55

Remember: 55 words or less