Consumers must be wary when learning new information

Anna MitchellThis past week it became impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news station and not feel a sense of hopelessness about the broken state of the world.

There are countless reports about the recent explosions and of who is responsible. Increasing amounts of details becoming public knowledge about what happened and the motives for why. Regardless of more information becoming available, it is disturbing how few concrete details are actually known about the current state of affairs.

Equally alarming is what the media has been doing with that minimal information. More and more reports are coming out, all saying more-or-less the same things as the reports before it. How do we have so much reporting if there is such little to report on?

Media outlets are spending their time (and making their money) by reporting speculation.

This practice creates a false sense of security that we know more than we really do. But this is not the same as real news reporting. In fact, the only thing that marks the difference between what the media is telling us, and what is considered a conspiracy theory, is the popularity of what is being said.

Truly, I do not expect the media will ever change their ways. We cannot expect them to (collectively) be responsible purveyors of information. Therefore we must take up a “consumer beware” mindset when learning new information.

We absolutely must know the difference between what is thought to be true and what is actually a fact. And vital to understanding this is recognizing the various ways information is presented.

For instance, saying “people believe Old Man Jones is a gardener” and saying “Old Man Jones is a gardener” are two very different statements. They are not interchangeable. If you read “people believe Old Man Jones is a gardener” and then told your friend you read somewhere that he was a gardener, you would be wrong. You read a speculation, misunderstood it and then misrepresented it as a fact.

Now imagine the consequences of doing this with something much more serious than accusing someone of growing tomatoes.

Furthermore, media outlets make their money by getting people’s attention. If their website gets the most clicks, if their channel gets the most views, they are the company that comes out on top. One method to getting consumers’ attention is by titling an article with a definitive statement that evokes extreme emotional response. This can be something inflammatory or outrageous or desirable.

For instance, the title says “Science Determines Cheese Creates Happiness.” You’re intrigued, so you click it. The article states that in a recent human behavior study, the majority of participants claimed cheese was at least “somewhat important” to their happiness.

It appears legitimate. Except what they aren’t telling you is that this study was conducted by handing out a five-question survey to 100 people in a Toledo Walmart, and that “majority” means 53 percent of participants. Now this information is not nearly as solid as it first appeared.

And yes, media outlets are allowed to do that — it becomes your responsibility as a reader to understand when information is poorly presented. Misleading information is a rampant cause of ignorance, and in a time of national tragedy ignorance has the potential to be toxic.

So, here are some tips in navigating information as we learn more about the Boston bombings:

Choose your sources carefully. Understand the difference between a news report and commentary on the news. If your source does not clearly distinguish between the two, be cynical.

Don’t just look into what the news tells you — look into what it isn’t telling you, and how it tells that information. Do they use words like “expected,” “speculated” and “believed”? Then they are not reporting facts, only opinions and assumptions.

Speculation is what news outlets report when they do not have actual facts to report on.

I don’t know if the Tsarnaev brothers are responsible for the Boston bombings. Neither do you. We only know they are suspected for doing so. And despite reading dozens of news reports, I still hardly know what reasons they are suspected of being responsible for them. The most people are able to do for now is take the few data points we have collected and use guesswork to force them to connect.

Guesswork is not the same as factual evidence. Remember that as you attempt to consume information responsibly in the upcoming future.

Anna Mitchell is a junior liberal arts major. Her columns appear Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.