* * *
Today’s post is brought to you by the EcoSphere Closed Aquatic Ecosystem Small Pod, a small, totally sealed saltwater aquarium containing shrimp, algae and beneficial bacteria, which requires no feeding and no electricity: it’s designed (based on NASA research) to remain in perfect balance for years, so long as the owner keeps it in the correct lighting and temperature conditions. Advertisers make it possible for Digital Media Mom to bring you great content each day for free, so thanks for your support.
* * *
Now that virtually ALL major news outlets are owned by giant conglomerates with major conflicts of interest and their own financial agendas to push, “infotainment” often takes the place of real journalism, clickbait and hype have become standard operating procedure online and plagiarism in the media is commonplace, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction and objectivity from “spin” when reading any current news story. Here are some easy ways to spot a less-than-trustworthy story.
1. An online news story quotes from a source, but fails to provide a link back to the source being quoted.
For example, I was recently directed to a Yahoo! Finance news story claiming that a Bookstats report shows “slowing ebook sales” and that ebook sales have “stalled” at a market segment of 21% of overall commercial publishing. All of which would definitely lead readers to think maybe this ebook thing really IS just a fad, and will never overtake print. The person who directed me to the story was using it as evidence in support of her claims along those lines. The only problem is, nothing could be further from the truth.
The story fails to provide any link to the quoted source. I found the source myself, and could immediately see the news story was completely false and misleading, and in all likelihood just another among many Amazon hatchet-jobs. What the report actually says is that while revenue from ebooks was flat in 2013, unit sales of ebooks skyrocketed to a record level. You have to dig a little deeper to learn that the reason why revenue is flat while unit sales are dramatically rising is that many ebooks are being offered for free or at prices less than $3 to help authors and smaller publishers build readership. But there is no doubt whatsoever that in terms of units sold, ebook sales are rising sharply year over year (see the Trends in Trade Formats section on the second page of the report summary, here).
Unless you bothered to do the legwork and read the report for yourself, you’d have no idea how misleading the Yahoo! Finance story is, and the story’s failure to provide the necessary source links makes it all but certain the reader will simply accept the story’s claims as facts.
2. A news story quotes from “unnamed sources”, “sources close to the investigation”, etc., but doesn’t provide any full names or separately verifiable facts.
I once worked for a veterinarian who had many celebrity clients: Gilda Radner, Hugh Hefner, Neil Diamond and Demi Moore among them. I could’ve abused my position to feed gossipy tidbits to the tabloids, and if I had, I would’ve been identified in stories as an “unnamed source” with some description that seemed to imply I was in a position close to the subject of the article. I could’ve made any claim I wanted, and there would be no way for the reader to verify it. Tabloids are more interested in making money than journalistic integrity, so these types of “a source close to the actress” stories are their bread and butter.
In crime or government investigation stories, you should be no less suspicious of “unnamed source” reports. While it’s true that sometimes a journalist must keep a source’s identity secret to protect the source’s safety, the days of Woodward and Bernstein are sadly far behind us. Nowadays, if a public figure refuses to go “on the record” about something, it’s usually because that public figure isn’t willing to stand behind their remarks. And if the source isn’t comfortable asserting something as a fact, then you shouldn’t be comfortable accepting it as one.
3. The story is actually a thinly-veiled “advertorial”.
It used to be that advertisements had to be very clearly, boldly labeled as such. Nowadays, in the U.S. at least, all that’s required is that some verbiage to indicate a given piece of content is advertising, “sponsored content”, or a testimonial is included—and that verbiage can be printed in the tiniest font size available, and it can be cleverly hidden along the top or bottom margin of the “story”.
These “advertorials” have gotten so clever, they even mimic the formatting, layout, fonts and editorial style of the magazine, newspaper or website where they appear, making it that much harder for the reader to distinguish them from actual news, articles and content.
4. Watch out for “loaded” language, and opinion masquerading as fact.
“Loaded” language is the use of exaggeration, accusatory or inflammatory rhetoric to convince the reader of your position. In an editorial, it’s to be expected that the author is voicing a strongly-held opinion and will make his or her case as strongly as possible. But in the world of journalism, where it’s supposed to be “just the facts”, the use of loaded language is—or used to be—a cardinal sin. A reporter isn’t supposed to reveal his or her personal feelings about the events being reported, the job is to provide the public with all the facts it needs so individual readers or listeners can form their own, informed opinions.
Similarly, people who hold the public’s trust on account of their position in public office, the military, or any government field, are supposed to be extra-careful to avoid using loaded language because the public will assume the stated opinions of the individual are actually facts being disclosed by the agency or government arm that person represents. Sadly, many in positions of public trust don’t respect this guideline and will gladly go to the media to state that so-and-so is incompetent, so-and-so is dishonest, so-and-so is abusing the power of the office, and so on.
Unless the speaker is providing concrete evidence to back his or her claims, and (remember #1?) is also providing sources for that evidence that the reader or listener can verify separately, assume that what’s being said is merely opinion that’s been beefed up with some loaded language to try and trick, anger or frighten you into believing it.
This is also the tactic being employed by the investigator who asks the suspect, “Were you drunk when you beat your wife?” instead of asking, “Had you been drinking?” and then, “Was there a physical altercation with your wife?”
5. Keep an eye out for qualifiers.
Words intended to back off from a claim of absolute fact or a specific measurement/quantity are “qualifiers”. These words are purposely nonspecific, or even downright vague. This is how a news story can claim that “many mothers are outraged by the school’s position” based on a meeting of three mothers with the school’s principal.
6. Bait and switch / clickbait.
The bait and switch has become maddeningly common nowadays.
You click on a headline reading, “You’ll be SHOCKED by what this mother did to her crying toddler!” and the story turns out to be about a mother who chose to let her toddler have a public tantrum rather than give in to his demands that she buy him a toy.
A magazine cover headline can claim “Water Pollution Levels Reach Record High” and be published next to a photo of a drinking glass filled with disgustingly dirty water, when the story inside goes on to explain that while the pollution levels observed in recent tests do reflect a new record, they are still well below guideline limits for public safety.
An online news story headline can blare, “Governor Spends 3x As Much As Predecessor On Office Furniture” when the truth of the matter is that the governor’s office hasn’t been refurnished since 1975, and the current governor’s new furniture, while 3x as costly as the old furniture was when it was purchased, is still pretty modestly priced by today’s standards.
Don’t just run with the story from the headline, or even the sub-head summary that often appears below the headline. Until you’ve read the full story, you don’t have the full story.
Very often you’ll find the full story is just an advertorial, filled with loaded language and qualifiers, from sources close to the person or thing, that provides no verifiable facts.
* * *
And now, a word from our sponsor…
The EcoSphere Closed Aquatic Ecosystem Small Pod is obviously NOT a digital media product, but it’s one I personally own and can personally recommend. Whether for kids interested in learning more about how ecosystems work and remain in balance, adults who want a living, almost maintenance-free desk accessory, or anyone who simply enjoys observing the antics of the tiny, foraging shrimp inside, this thing is beyond cool! The Ecosphere is completely sealed, and the only maintenance is occasionally scraping excess algae growth using the included pair of magnets (one comes sealed inside the pod, the other comes with the shipping materials—full instructions included).
I have owned two of these in the past (and paid the full $108 for them, which included a mandatory $28 FedEx shipping charge since the shrimp are alive), so imagine my amazement at finding this one listed on Amazon at just $53.98, with free shipping included! That’s HALF what I’ve paid in the past, and this is definitely the genuine article, shipped via FedEx from the Eco-Sphere company in Arizona. I felt the last two I bought were well worth the full asking price, so for my money this is an absolute bargain.
Just set it in a stable, room-temperature spot where it will get 6-8 hours of indirect light each day (even flourescent light, like in an office, is fine!) and the system will stay in balance for as long as 7-10 years! While I’ve read online reviews from people who say theirs are still going strong 5 years and beyond, the longest I’ve managed to keep one going is just over three years. Though in fairness, each time my Ecospheres “died”, it was following a move so I’d probably de-stabilized the system.
Note that while some reviewers cite animal cruelty concerns with this product, fearing that the shrimp are simply doomed to live out their days in an increasingly poisonous environment that ultimately kills them, remember that the whole point of this thing is to maintain a closed ecosystem in perfect balance: the algae and bacteria provide food for the shrimp, the shrimps’ waste provides ‘food’ for the algae and bacteria, and so the cycle goes.
While some byproducts will accumulate in the water, these specific shrimp are used specifically on account of their hardiness and insensitivity to the buildup of those specific byproducts. I am an animal lover, even a lover of insects and crustaceans, so I would not keep any creature in unkind conditions and have done considerable research to satisfy myself that the Ecosphere is a humane environment. I have thoroughly enjoyed each Ecosphere I’ve owned, but don’t take my word for it: even Carl Sagan himself provided a testimonial for this product on the Eco-Sphere website!