Cory Gaines, Exclusives, Media, Uncategorized

Gaines: Media ‘fact-checkers’ might better look at their own biases

If you saw a billboard advertising the number one trusted source in news, how much sway would that hold for you?  My guess is that you’d probably do as 90% of the other drivers do and just move on with your day.  Maybe, just maybe, you’d think about it later and look them up.  Few among us would immediately accept news from no other source.  People are pretty adept at separating advertising copy from reality.

Not so at Rocky Mountain PBS apparently, or at least not so inasmuch as they feel you are able do so.  They took the time, I kid you not, to do an in-depth look at a series of billboards that went up around Denver in February claiming that the Epoch Times was the “Number one trusted source in news”.  RMPBS did a workmanlike job too, leaving no stone unturned in their effort to pull up from the root and bring to the light of day their version of the truth about the Epoch Times, and its “… sophisticated appearance, both in print and online, [which] obscures the partisan slant of its shadowy operation.”

Don’t get me wrong, I support efforts to seek truth and learn about the world around us.  I also support efforts to increase media literacy; I write about these sorts of things all the time.  But seeing things like RMPBS’s tilting at billboards can’t help but make me think that fact-checkers are perhaps too enamored of their own efforts.

Reality shows, however, that they are just as human as the rest of us.  They often delve into the absurdly picayune, as with the Colorado Sun’s “Gigafact” check on how many days of sunshine Colorado sees.  They often use their platform to attack those who they disagree with, they ignore some things and amplify others according to their whim, and they are just as apt to shade things as any other news operation, whether intentional or not.   Are they somehow different from the “number one trusted source in news?”  They are, to be sure, just as (intentionally) nebulous, but they are not (intentionally?) subject to the same scrutiny.

If I had to bet, I would put my money on the idea that efforts like these is about giving news operations and their devoted followers a status symbol.  Similar to a designer label on a purse, the fact-checking, the affiliation with The Poynter Institute (think Politifact), and things like The Trust Project, are statements to the outside world.  Our operation has standards.  I get my news from a reliable source.  How about you?

Fine enough as a marketing claim.  I would hope, however, that reasonable people could agree that good media hygiene requires the same kind of skepticism for fact-checing that you would bring to any other bit of news.  Why would it not?  No claim, no authority, is unassailable.  Anyone trying to hold truth solely for themselves is throwing up big, wavy red flags.

You should be asking yourself the usual questions.  Who pays the bills?  Who decides what gets covered and how?  What do other outlets and people say about this issue?  What kinds of things are fact checkers checking?  What are they not checking?

By way of example, I looked into the “who pays the bills” question.  As you might expect for outlets like RMPBS or the Sun, those they partner with are funded by left-of-center groups which likely come with agendas.  RMPBS partnered with an offshoot of the Poynter Institute, a group which has a reputation for making non-factual and interpretive judgement calls which they then label as facts.  The Sun’s Trust Project is funded by, among others, the Craig Newmark Foundation (whose Influence Watch page says “…funds initiatives that support left-of-center journalism, oppose election integrity legislation, and suppress right-of-center narratives in the news”) and The Democracy Fund (whose Influence Watch page says “…contributes to center-left and left-wing media organizations, groups seeking to infringe on campaign speech rights, left-of-center voter registration organizations, and nominally non-aligned public policy organizations”).

This doesn’t automatically negate everything they say, but it ought to put you on guard and give you pause.  It ought to spur you to dig a little, to look beyond the perspective of one group no matter who they say they are and how much trust they tell you they merit.  Because, again, no one is perfect, no one is without fault or bias.

Ultimately you, the news consumer, have the power to determine what kind of media you ingest.  With this power comes the responsibility to make sure that you enjoy a balanced diet and scrutinize claims.  Follow solid practice, cultivate good habits, and beware fact checking and the illusion of higher truth it gives.

Cory Gaines is a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.  He lives in Sterling on Colorado’s Eastern Plains and also writes at the Colorado Accountability Project substack


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