NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. For years now, conventional wisdom warned that the dwindling role and resources of traditional media would force every one of us to become an editor - to learn the difference between a credible source and an interested party; where fact stops and spin begins; what's solid journalism, and what's bought and paid for.
But conventional wisdom didn't tell us how to ferret out the truth amid the farrago on radio and TV, on the newspapers and in the Internet. So whether you're a cop or a teacher or lawyer or an accountant, what technique from your job do you apply to judge whether a news story is fact or opinion? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, seven lessons learned from a summer spent watching romantic comedies at the movies. But first, Tom Rosenstiel joins us here in Studio 3A. He's co-author of "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload." Tom, nice to have you back on the program.
TOM ROSENSTIEL: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And before you became director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, you worked as a reporter yourself, back in the day. Clearly, the profession of journalism may have more helpful techniques than many others.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROSENSTIEL: Well, you know, I think that journalists are skeptical observers of the world, and the skills that they have going out and running around and finding things out - a little bit like private detectives, in some ways - are skills that now, all citizens need to employ for themselves. The research shows that a decade ago, most people got the news by - at prescribed times during the day: at the breakfast hour or at the dinner hour, during drive time.
And when they did that, they got their news from one news organization at a time - and people had a primary news provider. That has broken down. We now get stories all throughout the day, all of us, from many sources. And often, these are stories that our friends send to us. The majority of adults email stories to one another. We function as our own editors. We create our own news diet for ourselves. We create our own front page, if you will.
So what are the skills that we should use in picking those stories for ourselves? Because we're no longer relying on the - on seven white males at the New York Times to do that for us.
CONAN: And one of the questions that you suggest that people use to help them inform themselves, to judge the content of what you're encountering: What kind of writing is this?
ROSENSTIEL: Right. I mean, the first question you have to ask is: Where am I? Am I listening to a propagandist? Is this a news show? Is it an opinion show? What land am I in? And one of the things we do in the book is, we outline a variety of models of journalism that are out there now - because journalism itself is no longer this homogenous product.
CONAN: But those lines - you also point out - blur. You could turn onto a radio station and hear a newscast which may be pretty straightforward, and followed immediately by a partisan from one side or the other.
ROSENSTIEL: And sometimes, they blend unto themselves. I noticed that on MSNBC, they're going to have a 9/11 memorial special, and it will be hosted by Richard Engel, their Middle East reporter who covers news for the Nightly News about Afghanistan and previously, Iraq; and also by Rachel Maddow. Now, these are not equivalents in the media environment.
Rachel Maddow is a political liberal talk show host, and she's going to sit there at the anchor desk on this day with someone who has cast himself - or tried to - as a neutral reporter. How, as a viewer, are you supposed to judge them? Are they the same? Are they going to play different roles? Is anybody identifying that for me, or am I supposed to figure that out for myself? What's going on?
CONAN: What's going - and that gets more and more difficult as we go further and further in the age of - you say we've gone from the age of information to the age of affirmation.
ROSENSTIEL: Yes. There's a whole bunch of journalism out there, which is a kind of neopartisan press, a lot of talk show hosts - I would say not this one, per se, but a lot of, particularly on cable and some of the traditional radio political talk show hosts - that are engaged in what I call the journalism of affirmation. And the reason I call it that is they make their money and assemble their crowd, their audience, by affirming the preconceptions that the audience brings to the newscast.
Which is different than a partisan press back 100 years ago - which was not there to make money, and really wasn't there necessarily to attract a crowd, even. The old partisan press was controlled by the parties and functioned as a kind of nonprofit communications arm. That is not true of the commercial partisan press we see today. If those guys didn't succeed with advertising and revenue, they would be off the air even if they were very loyal to whatever party interest they might agree with.
CONAN: We want to hear from you - what tools you bring from your job or your profession to check on the news that you read and hear. Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. We'll start in Pensacola, in Florida, with Scott.
CONAN: Hi, Scott. What are you doing? And what rules do you - what techniques do you adopt?
SCOTT: Well, I teach history over in Pensacola. And I generally use the same techniques that I use in my field, which is double-checking things, fact-checking as much as I can. And, you know, and also just checking differences between, you know, the primary sources, how many people are reporting on certain stories and, you know, and those kind of pretty basic techniques.
You know, for instance, like with the stories that have been going on in Syria right now, all the news that's coming out of there - you know, when it seems to come from just one source and one side, although a lot of times it's mentioned that they have other, you know, that this cannot be confirmed or this cannot be confirmed by outside parties, you know. To me, it still makes it a little suspect to what's going on.
And I try and do that as much as possible. It doesn't mean anything that people are saying isn't happening or that, but it just kind of leaves a little bit of a skepticism in my mind.
CONAN: Scott first enunciates a good principle: Double-check your sources. But also, this situation we've seen from the Arab Spring in particular - and he cites Syria; before that, Libya - where you were getting videos that were undated. You weren't sure who recorded them or exactly where they recorded them, or if they may have been staged by provocateurs, or what was going on.
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah. And that is one of the ways in which the news we get needs to change in this new environment, where - that the audience is essentially left to often judge for itself. We need the press to be more transparent than it used to be about sources and about where video came from, and also to acknowledge what it doesn't know.
I mean, when you and I were young pups in the news business, we were - I was taught - and you, I assume, as well - were taught things like never raise a question in a story that you can't answer.
ROSENSTIEL: Which was designed to kind of make your story seem omniscient and airtight, like you knew everything you were talking about. It was a bit of a dodge. I remember my dad calling me up once and saying: I never knew you know so much about commodities.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROSENSTIEL: And I said, I don't know anything about commodities. I just know how to fake it. We can't do that anymore. It's - we owe - journalists owe - have a responsibility to acknowledge what it is that isn't known yet, because that's as much part of the news now as what we do know, because your audience is navigating across many sources.
CONAN: But you get this feed from Twitter of somebody being shot on the streets of Tehran. It's clearly become a major political event. Yet you don't know if it's true or not. You put it on the air or not?
ROSENSTIEL: I would say no. Some people would say yes. You certainly, I think, have an obligation to acknowledge, if you don't know whether it's true, to admit that. I remember during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in '98, a front-page story in the Chicago Tribune that said: ABC News yesterday reported that a third-party witness had seen the president and blah, blah, blah, period, paragraph. Second paragraph of the story: If true - comma - this could be politically damaging, da, da, da, da.
The notion that a newspaper would print the story on its front page and didn't know if it was true was something that prior to the mid-'90s, never would happened. And now, it happens on a regular basis.
CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the call.
SCOTT: Oh, you're welcome.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Walter(ph), Walter with us from White Springs, also in Florida.
WALTER: Hello, I really enjoy your show. Thanks for having me on the air.
CONAN: Well, thanks for calling.
WALTER: What I try to do, in writing a small column that I write for this small-town newspaper here in White Springs, and also as a consumer of news, I try to be aware of hyperbole, buzzwords, things that just seem almost too frenetically presented to you. A lot of times, that's a reflection to me that it throws up a real warning flag whereas a more neutral tone, a person that seems to talk in a more factual tone, oftentimes that lends you to believe that he's probably telling you the truth.
So as a consumer of news, I look out for those, hyperbole and all those buzzwords that tend to strike fear into people's heart, and I take warning from that, that it might not necessarily be true.
CONAN: And again, that may be useful advice - don't you think, Tom?
ROSENSTIEL: I would say you're batting two for two here with callers, Scott and Walt. I mean, one of the interesting things to me is, listen to the vocabulary of local television news, particularly during things like hurricanes or weather events, or when they've got new video. Count up how often the word stunning, shocking, startling, heart-pounding might be used. And then use the Walt scale on that, I think.
CONAN: It's interesting - and Walter, thanks very much for the advice - it's interesting, you also note that television, when it first came on the air, we talk about different revolutions and how nothing really is new again; we've had a lot of disruptions every time there have been these technological revolutions. But the television adopted not the hyperbolic tone of the news reels, which people were accompanied - to seeing in the movies, but the authoritative, relatively flat tone of radio.
ROSENSTIEL: Right because a couple of reasons. One, they wanted to establish their authenticity with audiences since they were in their homes, and they thought this would be a way of building up their news divisions. These were the same news divisions that had come from radio. Edward R. Murrow had helped CBS establish its CBS news operation during the war, and now was transferring to television.
The other reason was government oversight. They were very worried about getting their licenses renewed, and the FCC had all kinds of regulations that - and they were worried, frankly, if they were perceived as political, that it would be - that it would hurt their licenses. It turned out to be good for money-making, as well, to be nonpartisan.
CONAN: But go back and listen to the narration on some of those newsreels. It sounds like from another planet. We're talking with Tom Rosenstiel. His book is titled "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload." He's the co-author, along with Bill Kovach. What technique from your job do you use to vet the news? Give us a call, 800-989-8255; email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The concept of the trusted journalist as gatekeeper of information is obsolete. Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach argue in their book that a deluge of information means everyone must now be their own reporter and editor and fact-checker.
Driving the shift, of course, is technology. As they write in the book's afterword: Do these new technologies and tools make the truth easier to get or harder? Are we becoming more informed or more confused? The answer to all these questions, we believe, is the same. The answer to whether things are better or worse is yes, both. We can be better informed than ever before and also, more confused. The truth is easier to see, but also harder.
You can read more about the shift in the news business in an excerpt from the book "Blur" at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So whether you're a cop or a teacher, a lawyer or an accountant, what technique from your job do you use to vet the news? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's go to Suzanne(ph), Suzanne with us from Grinnell in Iowa.
SUZANNE: Hi, yes, am I on?
CONAN: You're on, go ahead, please.
SUZANNE: OK, thanks. Well, I've been - my field is economics originally, and I've been a teacher and I'm now a farmer, and I've used all those fields. As an economist, correlation does not prove causation and oftentimes when I'm looking at articles or news programs that you - something is being assumed to cause one thing when you can't prove that.
And just from my academic background, the - looking at sources, and is there a vested interest in those sources that might make - I mean, I read the publications for agriculture and, you know, the Corn Growers Association will say corn syrup is perfectly safe, and you think, well, it may or may not be, but you definitely have a vested interest in this issue. So it's not an unbiased opinion. So those are the types of things that I look for, as well as the underlying slant of the research think-tanks.
CONAN: It sounds like your experience as a farmer has made you sensitive to the odor of manure.
SUZANNE: Can you smell me?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUZANNE: Yes, we are meat farmers. So yes, that's true.
CONAN: That's true enough. OK, those are also pretty good principles, don't you think, Tom?
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, absolutely. One of the interesting things is that these weren't always things that journalists themselves were conscious of. There have been - there are many instances where journalists would get - and one of the ideas that people used to operate on was the two-source rule, if you had two sources.
And there are now instances, some of them fairly famous, where journalists would say, you know, I realized afterwards that my two sources were really the same source; they had the same originated source. Or during the late '90s, the New York Times began to think about what's the motivation behind our sources.
That's fairly late in the game here for the New York Times to be thinking about source bias because we use these sort of techniques and thought, well, you know, Joe's a good reporter; he wouldn't talk to the guy if he wasn't a good source.
Now, those techniques are not only something that you have to sort of trust the reporter with, but you need to share them with the audience so that they can decide for themselves, well, does this source have a vested interest?
CONAN: There's also the decline of - well, for example, the decline of a once-great wire service, United Press International, at the end of its life as a major news service. The old line used to be if it's on UPI, you still need two sources.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SUZANNE: Can I add one thing to that?
CONAN: Go ahead, Suzanne.
SUZANNE: Yeah, that it's also very - it's hard in this age, where we have lots of private companies that are funding research, and they're actually funneling them through sometimes - both in agriculture but also in medicine - through major universities. And that is not always apparent when the journal result findings come out - that there was somebody paid in this study.
CONAN: Not only who paid for the study but the lawyer's question that we hear all the time - cui bono, who benefits? That's a good question to ask, don't you think, Tom?
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, and these notions that a news organization would share that kind of information or present it because the audience demands it, this is still relatively new territory. I mean, I talk to news organizations all the time, and they're trying to figure out, you know, what is it that audiences want now?
And the idea that you would share more about your news-gathering process is still a difficult concept for a lot of traditional journalists who think, well, they should trust me because I've been at this for a very long time.
CONAN: Suzanne, thanks very much for the call.
SUZANNE: Thank you.
CONAN: Email from - this is from Elk River, Idaho, from Ruth(ph): If there's background music, it isn't news.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: That's a pretty good principle.
ROSENSTIEL: Didn't you just run some background music on this show?
CONAN: Underneath you only.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: This is from Bob(ph) in Wilmington, North Carolina: I worked in intelligence, Army analysis. We were taught to evaluate every source ratings on two, six-point scales: How reliable is the source, A through F; and how likely is the info to be true, one through six. We provided this rating with the information when we passed it on for consideration to the next consumer. That's not a bad scale to bear in mind.
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, although counting to six can be hard for journalists sometimes.
CONAN: Only five fingers on one hand.
ROSENSTIEL: Right. I think we might need a four-point scale.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Bob(ph) - excuse me, Rob(ph), in Tulsa.
ROB: Rob in Tulsa, yes, sir, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
ROB: Listen, I was a newspaper reporter in the early '90s, and that was before the Internet, I believe. In those days, the editor would look at you, and they'd say to you: What are you doing sitting in the newsroom? There's no news in this newsroom. You need to get out there and find the story.
And I found that for the last, you know, decade, that people today don't actually gather news. They compile it from the Internet. They never go out and eyeball the people that they're supposed to be quoting. They never go to see the facts and circumstances that they're working on. Instead, they rely on second-hand, third-hand, fourth-hand information - which to me, just totally undermines the entire concept of reporting.
CONAN: Go out - so you look for people who have actually been on the scene, and talk to the people?
ROB: I like to see that, you know, and newspapers are always a better source of news because they have more time to do in-depth coverage. And to be honest with you, I think that the ethical standards at a newspaper are still high, as opposed to the bloggers, as opposed to some of the syndicated news programs that we get on the radio.
CONAN: And the sound you just heard is the cockles of Tom Rosenstiel's heart warming.
ROSENSTIEL: As an ex-newspaper man.
ROB: It deserves to be because there was another example I was talking about with your screener - that there was a story recently here in Tulsa about a holiday parade, and they had taken Christmas out of it. And I was amazed to hear that the person who was organizing the protest against taking Christmas out, was also the reporter who was reporting on the story. And they had no conception why that was ethically wrong.
CONAN: Well, they need to go - well...
ROSENSTIEL: They need to read "Blur."
CONAN: They need to read "Blur," that's what they need to do.
ROB: I think they need to go to journalism school, at least, or at least read some of the ethics regarding it.
CONAN: Well, it does raise the question - and Rob, thanks very much for the call - conflict of interest is a basic principle that is ingrained. It certainly was in my training, and I suspect in yours, too.
ROSENSTIEL: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that the Internet makes possible is for the people who make the news to create their own journalism about it, whether it's corporations or trade associations or interest groups.
CONAN: And this could go all the way to an author writing their own review on Amazon.com.
ROSENSTIEL: And having their friends do it. And, you know, there's - we live in a world of spin and marketing, and when the gatekeeper role of the press breaks down for all the reasons that we're familiar with, it means that - I mean, the notion of a gatekeeper really comes down to the idea that if I were trying to make the news and I wanted to reach the public, and you, Neal, were the press, I had to go through you to do that.
I know - you're now only one conduit that I have, or one - and you might be the most aggressive filter in that. So I'm, as a newsmaker, going to use a lot of other tools to reach the public.
That also changes what we need from journalists. It's not enough for you as the journalist to simply tell me what you heard. You have a bigger responsibility now to tell me, of the things that I've heard, as a member of the public, which ones are true and which ones are not; help me authenticate the things that are already out there.
And that's a new role, in many ways, for a journalist because it's not just: Here, I went and covered the story, and here's what I saw.
CONAN: Another of the tests that you provide that might be useful - the questions - what evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted? And I think people sometimes forget the definition of evidence as opposed to inference.
ROSENSTIEL: Right. That's a big concept in the book, that evidence is something that you can test and, I mean, the notion - Suzanne made the point that the fact that things correlate - that, you know, left-handed people may do more X, Y and Z doesn't mean that that's why, that that's the cause.
We may infer the causation, but it's not proven. One of the things that we talk about in the book, that I think people know in their own lives, is the idea of the null hypothesis. OK: People are arguing that this is caused - or that this evidence proves the following. What if it doesn't? What if the opposite is true? What if there's a different hypothesis? Has that been tested? Or has the journalist simply taken what everybody has said as conventional wisdom, and just accepted it and passed it along, because everybody is saying it?
CONAN: One of the things you provide in the book is examples of journalists in the past who have proved instructive to their colleagues - one of them Homer Bigart of the New York Times, who went to Vietnam relatively early on and stunned people by going ahead of time, before they went out in the field, saying, what are we - what do you expect to see, what are we supposed to see, how is this going to be changed, what are we going to see that's different? Going to see it for himself.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Reporter Neil Sheehan covered the Vietnam War for United Press International and then the New York Times.]
And then, you report he's coming back on a helicopter after two days in the boonies with Neil Sheehan, then a reporter for the AP. And Sheehan says, boy, two days hiking around in the heat, we didn't get anything. And Bigart says, kid, you don't get it.
ROSENSTIEL: Right. He said: What we found is, they can't do any of the things they claim they can do. They're essentially spinning us. And the war, at this point, is not accomplishing what they say they're going to accomplish. That was 1961. And Bigart, I mean, we were barely - had barely arrived, and Bigart was already...
CONAN: Starting days of advisers, yeah.
ROSENSTIEL: Right. We didn't have ground troops at that point. And Bigart was already, I mean, he was two or three years ahead of any other reporter because he had simply asked a series of questions that established some criteria for evidence.
CONAN: And using a technique that he called, well, ignorance.
ROSENSTIEL: Right, portable ignorance. He would go and say, I don't get this; explain it to me. What are you going to try and do? As opposed to being seduced into trying to look like you know everything and you're very knowledgeable, and that you're sort of in, you know - that you're astute. He used being not astute as a powerful tool.
CONAN: We're talking with Tom Rosenstiel, co-author - along with Bill Kovach - of "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload." And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News. And let's go next to Tony, Tony calling us from Long Island.
TONY: Oh, hi. Thanks for taking my call.
TONY: Well, I'm a graduate student right now. And whenever I listen to the news, I tend to think of like, the writing courses I've taken and the research courses I've taken. And I kind of judge the stories from that perspective - like, is the reporter showing some sort of bias, or are they leading the story in a certain direction?
CONAN: Well, how do you detect that? What tools do you use?
TONY: Like the types of - maybe the types of words that they use and like, their attitude, maybe. And I think more on the cable networks, you might find more of an opinion. It's hard - I think it's hard to do, but I think of it like if this reporter was writing this piece for a class, like, what grade would they get on it?
CONAN: That's not too bad.
TONY: And that's where I'm coming from.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Well, some of us have filed stories that we would like to leave in the F pile. So Tony, thanks very much for the call.
ROSENSTIEL: You know, I think it's difficult because one of the things that as consumers we need to do is rise above our own beliefs about things. One of the analogies we use in the book is, if you were handling - trying to identify where a leak in your house was coming from, you'd be pretty objective about it. You might think it's coming from the bathroom, which is right above the kitchen, where the water is coming down. But if you turn the water off in that bathroom and it was still leaking, you would say, well, that's not it. It's got to be someplace else.
When we encounter news, especially news about politics and things that we care about, we often don't do that. We don't test our own preconceptions, and we sort of want to be comforted - and I think more so now, in some ways, than ever before because when information is in vast supply about things, it's easier to be confused. It's actually harder to become knowledgeable when there is more information because you have to sift through more stuff.
It's a little bit like what we see in criminal justice now, where now that we have DNA testing, we're finding out that some of our old tools, like eyewitness testimony, isn't as good as we thought it was. It's getting harder to convict criminals because we have more tools, and we have more doubt. We need to exercise that same doubt, and not pander to our preconceptions in politics. At this moment in time, I think in politics, as consumers, we haven't learned to do that. And one of the problems, perhaps, in the political system is that politicians are pandering directly to voter emotions. They don't - they can avoid the filter of journalists much more easily than they could a few years ago. And I suspect that's part of the process of polarization that we have.
CONAN: Talk about doubt, here's an email that we have from Sheila(ph): Back in 1978, when my first husband was shot and killed while working as a night manager in a convenience store, a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer came to my house for a story. I suppose he wanted the young, grieving widow's angle. Anyway, I was still in shock - not in the mood to talk with him. The reporter informed me in no uncertain terms that he would write a story. I could give him the real story, or he'd write his version of the story. Either way, he would write a story. Needless to say, I have an extreme distrust of news reporters.
ROSENSTIEL: And that is an example of the kind of power and arrogance that the press was able to demonstrate for a very long time. It would be much harder to do that today because a crime victim would have many other ways of sort of getting their point of view out. And I think journalists, frankly, can't afford that kind of arrogance in a way they once could, when the Raleigh News & Observer was the only news outlet.
CONAN: And it, like many newspapers, had a - pretty much of a monopoly in its market. Tom Rosenstiel, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
ROSENSTIEL: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. You can read an excerpt from his latest book at our website, npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. The book is "Blur: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload."
Up next, seven lessons from this summer's crop of romantic comedies. What do you think we can learn from rom-coms? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.