By Alex Fink
Yogi Berra once said that the future is not what it used to be. His words echo in my mind as I read the news these days – clearly, the news are not what they used to be either Informed In.
At some point, many years ago, I started collecting the worst headlines I could find. Mistakes always happen, and journalistic mistakes tend to be funnier than others. Here are some examples of headlines from years ago:
- “World Bank Says Poor Need More Money”
- “Diana Was Still Alive Hours Before She Died”
- “Man Found Dead In Graveyard”
Such headlines routinely appeared in smaller publications, and when they did, they made my day. Everyone loves a good laugh, right? But what these headlines always had in common is that they were not intentionally bad Informed In .
They were an accident Informed In. And usually, the accident appeared in smaller publications where a single editor could have been drunk or preoccupied, but they never appeared in larger and more respectable publications.
These days, however, things are quite different. Here are some examples from the last 2 years alone:
- “14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.”
- “One-fifth of this occupation has a serious drinking problem”
- “Hitler created the largest gun ever, and it was a total disaster”
- “How to trick your brain to work faster?”
- “Why is the camel toe not fashionable?”
Notice that these headlines are also quite bad, but somehow it feels like a different kind of ‘bad’ Informed In . They are bad on purpose.
These headlines sensationalize something trivial in an attempt to make you click on them. They try to evoke an outsized emotion over something that does not contain any intrinsic value.
Finally, they all come from publications that – until recently – were the torch-bearers of good journalism. In order, these headlines are from:
- CNN Breaking News.
- The Washington Post.
- Business Insider.
- The Times.
At some point, one can’t help but wonder – what were these editors thinking? The biggest, most respected names in news, with an editorial staff numbering in the hundreds, publish articles about camel toes? What on earth is going on?
The Inflection Point(To Be Informed In The Age of Misinformation)
This problem, of course, is not accidental. No editor wakes up one day and decides to focus his or her editorial efforts on Hitler’s guns. What editors do, for the most part, is trying to make the publication profitable while maintaining as much journalistic integrity as they can.
In the past, profit and integrity went hand in hand. If the New York Times had great journalistic standards and its stories turned out to be false less often than those of the New York Post, then its bottom line would also outpace the bottom lines of its less-rigorous rivals.
But then everything changed.
In the internet age, subscription revenue is negligible compared to revenue from online ads. Online ads are pay-per-click or per-view; there is no pay-per-quality or pay-per-truth. And, unfortunately, 30 years of optimizing for clicks and views has taught most editors that the correlation between clicks and integrity is usually negative.
So in a struggle for survival, where each editor is trying to make the owners of his or her news outlet happy by generating outsized profits, all content gets optimized for clicks and views over time. The entire ecosystem devolves into a junkyard, full of clickbait and sensationalist half-truths.
What Can We Do?
Now let me get personal for a while.
When I was growing up, under communism, all the legal news outlets were rubbish. They were the butt of jokes. Pravda was only better than others because it was made of softer paper, and since the Soviet Union had frequent shortages in the supply of basic necessities… You get the picture.
Most people were ok with this state of affairs and just ignored the news. They lived their lives day by day, focusing on what they could see with their own eyes and do with their own hands.
Informed In But my parents would wake up at 4 am to listen to Voice of America, because they wanted to be informed about what is going on in the world. They had to be informed.
I’ve inherited this compulsion from my parents. I don’t get how people can make good decisions if they don’t have good information to base it on.
So given the current state of journalism in the United States – I had to develop a toolkit for filtering the news.
What follows below is my set of rules for getting informed in the junkyard that is the internet:
- Don’t trust a single source.
Good information can only be found in cross-referencing – if one newspaper Informed In says something is true and others don’t, the others are probably right.
- Read aggregators.
Since no single source can be trusted, you should either curate your own diverse set of sources and visit their websites one after the other, or you should select an aggregator that curates them for you.
Some of my favorites are: allsides.com, realclearpolitics.com, and (plug alert: this is my own project) otherweb.com. These aggregators help you see articles from dozens of the least-bad publications out there, with a healthy selection of viewpoints and perspectives represented Informed In .
- Assume every claim is false until proven otherwise.
This one is difficult, especially since we’ve been conditioned in our culture to give others the benefit of the doubt. But consider how many stories – on both sides of the political aisle – end up being wrong just days later?
Bombastic claims are made on the front page, with hundreds of posts on social media making sure you see them right away.
Retractions are made by editing an old web page and never telling a soul.
So whenever you read any claim that does not appear in multiple sources that generally disagree with each other Informed In – Informed In assume it is false until someone presents you with extraordinary proof.
Hope For The Future
I want to wrap things up on a positive note. As my experience at the Otherweb shows, it is possible to modify the incentives of news publishers and nudge them towards producing better content over time Informed In .
Artificial intelligence has its downsides, but its upsides are also undeniable. There is no better tool for tackling repetitive tasks at scale. And filtering junk – is the ultimate repetitive task.
Now, granted, we all must collectively watch the watchers. Fact-checkers are not more trustworthy than the newspapers they FactCheck. But therein lies another advantage of artificial intelligence – people can claim to be unbiased while favoring a particular team or narrative; software whose source has been opened for public review – cannot.
This is why Otherweb’s models are open to the public. We wouldn’t trust them ourselves if they weren’t. Beware of closed-source algorithms. Test and verify the open-sourced algorithms yourself. And above all, be skeptical of everyone – self-identified skeptics included.
It is undoubtedly an uphill battle, but we’ve gone from the witch hunts to the enlightenment once before.
Hopefully this time we can do so in less than two centuries.
Alex Fink is the Founder and CEO of the Otherweb, a news platform that allows its readers to read news and commentary, Informed In listen to podcasts, and search the web without paywalls, clickbait, ads, autoplaying videos, affiliate links, or any other junk.