What is news, anyway? A new Pew study raises the question.

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FLICKR/PEDRO RIBEIRO SIMÕES
  • Flickr/Pedro Ribeiro Simões
How and from where do we get our news? The Pew Research Center just released a new study on the news preferences of the American public. The findings make for unsurprising reading, but as I read, I began to think about the study itself.

The Modern News Consumer tells us that more Americans would rather watch their news than read it, that most Americans who watch it would rather watch it on a TV screen than on a desk- or laptop screen, and that most Americans who read it read it on a news website or social media platform. It seems just two adults in ten often get their news from a print newspaper any longer, and among adults 18 to 29 it's one in 20. The long downward spiral continues.


But wherever our news comes from, we're suspicious of it. Three out of four of us think the news is biased, though three out of four of us also think both the local and national news media do a decent job of keeping us informed. Apparently the biases don't bother us that much—maybe we take pride in our ability to separate fact from spin. Or maybe we prefer news when it's spun if it's spun our way. Curiously, we believe local and national news is biased regardless of how closely we even follow it. Since people who don't follow the news wouldn't know themselves, I guess they assume it's biased because everyone says it is.

Which everyone does say. And always has said.

But what is news?

Pew casually defines it, telling the 4,654 Americans 18 and up it surveyed to think of news as "information about events and issues that involve more than just your friends and family." I grew up thinking that news was what I read in the papers, heard on the car radio, or was told by amiable coanchors at 10 PM. Everything else was gossip, rumor, the buzz on the street. 

Now, the gossip, rumor, and buzz double as social media. But if  "news" from anywhere is greeted skeptically, on social media it's an uphill slog to pass the smell test. Pew asked its survey audience "how much, if at all" they trusted social media sites, and just 34 per cent said "a lot" or even "some." This put social media a dead, distant last in trustworthiness, far behind the next least trustworthy source of information: friends, family, and acquaintances—you know, the people we love and have learned to tune out when they shoot their mouths off. Their news polled 77 percent in trust.

But questions about trust and mistrust don't have much meaning when it comes to social media. The other day someone I respect by reputation but don't actually know despite being a Facebook friend (you know how that goes) showed up on my page linking to a story that flabbergasted her. The story said Sarah Palin had just declared that Native Americans should all go back to Nativia.

There is a kind of race to the bottom among some Facebook friends, a competition in believing there is nothing Republicans wouldn't do and posting the latest and most astonishing examples. 

The result is a certain credulity.

My Facebook friend had taken at face value as trustworthy a news story I read as a joke. To me it wasn't untrustworthy news because it wasn’t news at all—it was satire. 

To me, getting news on social media is like shopping at a second-hand store. It's a counter heaped with sweaters: keep your eyes open and hold everything up to the light and you'll find one that isn't full of holes. Pew tells us 80 percent of the people surveyed "often" or at least "sometimes" click on links to stories they spot on social media. That to me is holding them up to the light. I clicked on the one about Palin—I wanted to read the story and I was curious about the site (dailycurrant.com) responsible for it. But to me it wasn't news because it wasn't true. Yet the fact it wasn't true impeached nothing in my eyes—not the story, not the friend posting it, and not Facebook as a source of news.

Pew asked its people this: "When you are online and come across information in a news story that you think is inaccurate, how often do you take it upon yourself to figure out whether it is accurate?" With respect to the Palin story, how should I answer this? I admit I clicked on the link and read the story carefully. But it wasn't a news story because it was a send-up of a news story, and it wasn't inaccurate because its accuracy was beside the point. I didn't read it to figure out if it was true, but to make sure it wasn't. (Palin being Palin, there was a scintilla of doubt.)

On the other hand, it was written to be almost believed, and by some readers it was believed, and that's why I found it on Facebook. Social media bring us into a realm where people of good will can disagree not merely on whether a news story is accurate but on whether it should be accurate or is even a news story. Pew is dealing in venerable concepts like "news" and "trust" that never needed to be defined before but might not suffice any longer.

The Pew report tells us that when people get news online their most common way of responding to it is to have a conversation. Thirty percent of the time that's what Pew's sample audience did, while 17 percent of time they responded by searching for more information. Just 5 percent of the time their reaction was to e-mail or text someone with the news.

Why? Pew doesn't speculate. But beyond the gratifications of talking something over, one reason is probably the instantaneousness of digital media. There's no pleasure in letting someone in on something big when they already know. I'm curious about the 17 percent who want to know more; I bet when they try to find out, the first thing most do is abandon social media for serious news sites.

Where do we get our news? There's "news," which these days can come from anywhere and is basically a slag dump of headlines, gossip, and rumor; and there's the news we seek out and sink into because we want detail and context. "Get news" is Pew's language, but it's too crude for today's distinctions. 

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