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The Best News Source

February 21, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

As you may know (and there’s know way you couldn’t if you follow this blog) I listen to a lot of podcasts. The great thing about these is that they can be created and distributed quite easily and because of the history of the technology they tend to be both created and used by technically and scientifically literate people.

But many people consider them a lesser source of news and information – lesser than traditional sources like TV and radio news for example. But are they? I don’t think so.

I consume quite a lot of information on many topics and from many sources. Some of the topics I would consider myself quite knowledgeable about and others not so much. The thing is, that when I listen to material on topics I know a fair bit about from “conventional” sources – even fairly respectable sources like New Zealand’s RNZ National – I notice a lot of errors. I don’t tend to notice this so much with internet sources like podcasts.

There are some complicating factors here. First, most of the RNZ material I listen to is actually in the form of podcasts, but I don’t count them in that category because they are really just recordings of radio items. The “true” podcasts are audio (or sometimes video) programs created specifically for that purpose. And it’s the true podcasts I am promoting as a superior source of information. Second, there are a lot of terrible podcasts, which are probably even less accurate than the traditional sources, but those aren’t the ones I’m listening to.

So it seems to me that if I listen to an item from a traditional source about computers, or astronomy, or an area of science I’m interested in, and almost always notice errors, then it’s likely that there are errors in all the other material too. I just don’t notice it so much in relation to the other topics because I’m not expert enough on those.

So it is a bit of a concern, isn’t it? The sources of news and information that most people use are not accurate.

I think there are a few factors which have lead to this unfortunate situation. First, there is a strong emphasis on providing unchallenging, simplified, entertaining presentations of information today. Second, many items in mainstream sources (TV, radio, newspapers) are created by journalists who may or may not have a good level of expertise in the subject area they are covering. Third, most mainstream sources are commercial and many have a clear bias.

Podcasts, on the other hand, tend to be created by small groups or individuals (although more and more are being created by larger companies) who balance entertainment with information, are experts in the area they have decided to create podcasts about, and don’t have a strong commercial incentive in what they do.

Of course, other internet information sources like blogs – and I mean blogs which concentrate on providing accurate factual information rather than those (like mine) which mainly present opinions – are also good sources. I prefer podcasts simply for the convenience of being able to consume them while doing other stuff like driving, walking around, mowing the lawns, etc.

I think it’s inevitable that traditional news and information sources will continue to gradually decline in both number and quality. News rooms are being downsized to save money and as big business takes over it will inevitably emphasise profit over quality. The internet is probably the biggest cause of this decline (although some people debate that point) but luckily it is also the internet which can provide a solution.

Sure, look on the internet and some of the sources are truly awful but that is also the case with traditional sources. For example, a few years back a study showed that people who watch Fox News (a US channel mainly associated with the political right) are less well informed than people who don’t watch any news at all!

If people are determined to be ignorant on a topic (I could mention climate change as an example) they will find plenty of material supporting whatever state of ignorance they wish to attain on both the internet and other sources (more so in larger countries and not so much in New Zealand because we are too small to have many obviously biased sources). But if people want to really know the truth I would suggest that the highest quality internet sources are where to go.

But that’s the problem: how to tell what is good and what is bad. I believe Google is looking at a reliability and quality rating system for web sites. If that is well done (and in search most of what Google does is brilliant) then at least that will be a good tool for those who actually want to know the truth.

As for those who want to remain ignorant, maybe they will need an alternative search engine which takes them to sites which reinforce their ignorance. There’s already an example of a similar service. It’s an alternative to Wikipedia called “Conservapedia” which is described as a “Wiki encyclopaedia with articles written from a Christian fundamentalist viewpoint” – in other words, it’s full of lies.

Yeah, I know Wikipedia isn’t perfect, and neither are podcasts or blogs. But at least the best examples of those start from a perspective of wanting to present good information, unlike many of the options.

The internet isn’t perfect, but it’s the best we have.

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