Guest Column: Democracy depends on responsible news consumption

October 5, 2011

David Porter

By David Porter
Director of Communications, Illinois Press Association

You alone are responsible for the news you consume. If I have only a few moments of your time, that’s the message I want to drive home.

You can talk about bias in the media, shortcomings among news staffs, fragmentation of audience, conspiracy theories and the boogey man, but at the end of the day, it’s nobody else’s responsibility to decide for you what is true, what is propaganda and what is opinion. You alone are responsible for the news you consume.

There’s an old saying that applies across many different platforms: Garbage in, garbage out. How are you going to make informed decisions about whom to vote for, what stocks to invest in, what foods to eat, what gasoline to buy, when to buy a house, what school your kids should attend or which horse to bet on if you only rely on snippets of information — often bias-based — that make their way to your ears and eyes?

That’s the world we live in today. A few years ago, a college student was anonymously quoted as saying, “If the news is that important, it will find me.” But as Mark Twain once observed, “A lie can travel halfway ’round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That was before the Internet. Now, the Internet includes this quote facetiously attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Most Internet quotes are not accurate.”

It’s hard to know what the truth is sometimes. A manufacturer with a vested interest in a product may tout its benefits that run contrary to a scientific study. On the other hand, some studies have been shown to use improper methods or to draw unfair conclusions. Whose job is it to decide what is true? It’s your job. You alone are responsible for the news you consume.

So, a political candidate says something bad about another candidate. The other candidate fights back with allegations of her own. Whose job is it to decide what the truth is? You alone are responsible for the news you consume.

There is help, though, and you’re holding it in your hands. It’s not the newspaper’s job to decide for you what is true, but newspapers, more than any other medium, strive to use reliable, accurate sources and to fairly provide all sides to any given story. It’s still up to you to decide what the truth is. Frankly, I think if you’re going to participate in the democratic process, you have an obligation to decide what the truth is. Otherwise, democracy becomes a dangerous game of Russian roulette.

Oct. 2-8 is National Newspaper Week. What a perfect time to take a new look at your local newspaper and to include it as part of your personal arsenal against misinformation. Don’t take chances with your news diet; add a little newspaper fiber. After all, you alone are responsible for the news you consume.

David Porter is the director of communications for the Illinois Press Association, which represents more than 480 newspapers in Illinois. The Rock River Times has been a member of the association since 2003.

From the Oct. 5-11, 2011, issue

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