June 26, 2005

Unbelievable

I’ve been a news junkie of sorts ever since 1982 when I got my first paper route. I read the news every morning at 5:00 a.m. while rolling up papers with rubber bands so I could toss them on people’s doorsteps from the street.

I believed everything I read then. The newspaper was, to me, a precise, factual, and comprehensive record of Everything Important That Happened Yesterday. It didn’t even occur to me that anything in those pages might be inaccurate in any way or that anything important might be left out. I was twelve years old and the people who wrote for the paper were all-knowing grown-ups.

I don’t think newspapers have changed much in the meantime. Not really. Today’s media problems were yesterday’s media problems. I’m the one who changed.

Lots of people have changed since then. And not all of them changed from twelve-year olds to 34-year olds. They changed because their tools changed.

The Pew Research Center has been tracking how many people believe what they read in the press for at least the past 22 years. Here are the results. (Graphic stolen from Jeff Jarvis.)

Believability Graph.gif

The number of sources of information each person has at their disposal keeps going up. We can read newspapers in other countries now. We couldn’t before, at least not nearly so easily as we can today on the Internet. There are blogs, of course. And not just American blogs. Also Iraqi blogs and military blogs and Iranian blogs and politically iconoclastic blogs. I can “interview” people myself, people who live on the other side of the world, just by sending an email. There also is Google. How on Earth did I ever live and learn without Google?

I don’t even bother with my daily newspaper now. It’s not even valuable as one source of information among many unless I want to know what happened yesterday right down the street – which is usually not very interesting.

Daily newspapers have all sorts of problems that can and ought to be fixed. But even if every one of them were fixed I don’t think they would poll a lot better than they do now. They would still be only one source of information among many. With the explosion of information technologies, daily newspapers – along with every other possible source of information – will remain more easily fact-checked than they ever have been in history. That isn’t the fault of newspapers or journalists. That’s history’s “fault” and technology’s “fault.”

I would like to see newspapers strive to regain the 84 percent believability level they had when I was 14 years old. But I doubt they ever will. I will never be 14 again. And we will never again be in the fact-checking dark as we once were. 84 percent was artificially high. It was before The Times Online, before Instapundit and Atrios, before MEMRI, before Wikipedia, before Google. We can't go back.

UPDATE: Apparently, journalists themselves think journalists are less credible than they once were. Hilariously, though, only one percent - one percent - think blogs are credible. They probably aren't reading this guy.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at June 26, 2005 11:16 PM
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Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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