Big News Media: Caveat Emptor

Partial map of Livermore area. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Livermore campus of Sandia National Laboratories are the pink area near the center of the image.

Between broadcast, cable, internet, and print news media, we have plenty of options for news. Many people have a favorite go-to news source they like and trust. Some even prefer non-journalistic “news” sources like late-night talk shows or social media. Interestingly, the person who likes one news source usually distrusts at least some of the other big news media, and one person’s favorite is often anathema to another person. Some of my friends love CNN or MSNBC but have nothing but insults for Fox News; other friends see it exactly the opposite. Some of us don’t fully trust any of them.

Big news media are fond of wrapping themselves in the cloak of truth, sometimes along with an appeal to pride, customer loyalty, or both. Current and recent slogans include, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” (New York Times), “The Most Trusted Name in News” (CNN), “Lean Forward” (MSNBC), “True Journalism” (CBS), and “Fair and Balanced” with “Standing Up for What’s Right” (Fox News). It all sounds wonderful, but none of the big news media work for free. We are consumers for their product, and “caveat emptor,” meaning “let the buyer beware,” seems like the right caution at this point.

I worked much of my career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The map above shows the main LLNL site where I worked. LLNL also operates Site 300, a large, remote site for field tests located miles east of Livermore. One evening years ago a local newscast featured a story about a grassfire near Site 300. Problem was, the newsman and his camera crew reported from just outside the gate of the Livermore site, asserted that the fire was at LLNL (implying that it was in Livermore), and never mentioned that the fire was really several miles east and posed no threat to the city. They got the location wrong, and my impression of their credibility never fully recovered.

As one consumer of news speaking to another, let me suggest that you be on your guard against big news media that report things you know to be incorrect. Most of my career involved science and technology for energy, environment, and national security. I know a little bit about those topics, so when a news story gets something in those areas wrong, that tells me something about the credibility of the reporting. It makes me wonder how much I can trust them with news stories outside my areas of expertise. You have expertise, too, whether through your work or simply based on life experience. When you see the big news media report something that you know to be incorrect, you need to factor that into how much you trust them. Caveat emptor!

Big news media might make mistakes based on faulty information or lack of knowledge. Sometimes, though, it isn’t a mistake. For example, this past summer (in June and again in September) I saw televised news in which a reporter described demonstrations in major US cities as being “peaceful.” Yet both times, behind the reporter, I could see buildings set on fire by rioters who were apparently celebrating the event. Was the reporter speaking truth? Only if you include arson in peaceful demonstrations. Caveat emptor!

Sometimes big news media manipulate the news by choosing to not cover a news story, or by distorting or denying it. I could give detailed examples, but will hold those for a future blogpost. Meanwhile, caveat emptor!

Are big news media worse today? You may disagree, but I don’t think so. They sell to an audience and they each have a marketing philosophy, world view, and personal agenda that combine to guide their reporting. This behavior goes all the way back to the founding of our country. So, as interested citizens and consumers of news, what do we do? Several thoughts come to mind:
• Check what you read and hear against what you know to be true. If a news source loses some credibility in the checking, factor that into how much you rely on that source for truth.
• Check different news sources against each other. This will help you detect distortion and falsehoods. If all your news sources agree, and maybe even use the same talking points, then it is time to look further afield.
• Consider different perspectives for what you can learn from them, and for how they might help you understand different points of view, whether internationally or just in your own hometown.
• Don’t immediately dismiss an outlier news story that you don’t like or that most of the big news media doesn’t cover. Unreported news is a frequent problem, at least here in the US, and evaluating the outlier story can help sharpen your skills in critical thinking.

Frankly, when it comes to the future of our country and its governance, I worry more about big news media not keeping us adequately informed than I do about corruption among our political leaders. More to follow…

8 thoughts on “Big News Media: Caveat Emptor

  1. If a government allows false propaganda under the umbrella of Free Speech, I am concerned. When government allows public dissemination of pornography or violentence in the form of cinema graphics and computer gaming under the umbrella of the 1st Amendment. I am concerned. I am not concerned about the news and social media, I am concerned about the morality of our government and those who elect the politicians that oversee that government. It seems that Christianity has taken a back seat to socially constructed morales.


    1. Agreed, we certainly have problems with corruption in many levels of our government. However, it is hard to hold them to account if the news media will not tell us what they are doing.


      1. So, you are saying that the government that represents the people is not in control, the news media is??


  2. Hi Jesse!

    I may not be commenting, but I AM really enjoying your blog. It’s nice to reflect on the thoughts of someone I trust. Caveat emptor! 😊

    Thanks for sharing.



    1. Thanks, Linda! Marvin Olasky describes the role of a journalist as that of a watchman on duty to speak out on what he sees. In a small way that is part of my goal for this blog. We’ve touched on some serious topics, so maybe it is time for some whimsy. Stay tuned! That triggers another thought: those of us who grew up in the days of tuning a radio or television know the origins of “stay tuned.” Now that we live with digital tuners and online resource, I wonder how many years it will take for that expression to lose its meaning…


  3. Your blog reminds me of listening to shortwave radio during the Vietnam war. We could reliably get a broad range of coverage by listening to Radio Hanoi and Voice of America, with the BBC somewhere in the middle. It made us stop and think about which reporting was nearest the truth.
    I think your point about the power of selectively covering or not covering some events is an important one. It is hard to factor things into your thinking if you never hear about them.


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