The rot started with radio. Back in the early days of radio the news was the news, and entertainment was clearly seen as completely different. There was no confusing the two. This continued into television for a while – the people reading the news were respected journalists. This was before the line blurred and then got entirely lost.
If you don’t believe me, just think of the reaction when War of the Worlds was dramatised in 1938 using fake news broadcasts (yes real fake news broadcasts) and caused widespread unease. People assumed that the news they heard was factual, researched, and authoritative. Doesn’t that sound quaint today?
You’re probably thinking this is going to be about ‘fake news’, and I suppose there’s an element of that, but really it’s about primary, secondary, and garbage sources of information. When I was studying at high school and university the key thing drummed into me again and again was to go to primary sources when they were available. A list of citations that showed a preponderance of secondary sources was simply not going to cut it in an essay. The primary source was important because it allowed you an unfiltered view of the facts or events. Now the original source wasn’t always possible to get to or accessible, so then you’d go to an authoritative secondary source and, preferably, you’d cross-reference a couple of secondary sources to make sure you hadn’t hit an outlying view. This was the stuff of basic research.
But today I see so many kids doing research by watching videos on YouTube. And so very often those videos are involve someone summarising a summary of a summary and there’s no hint of where the information came from. It’s great entertainment, may be educational, but as a source it’s simply garbage.
What makes this additionally scary is that it wasn’t long ago that you could make a rough judgment about the quality of the video based on its production values. Now, it is easy for anyone to produce a video in their bedroom with effects that ten years ago would have required a team of specialists. Production values are no longer any indicator of quality, to whatever extent they ever were.
So amongst the flood of authoritative-looking summaries it is becoming increasingly hard to filter out the real story. Finding the real, often complex, story takes work, takes reading, takes a willingness to wade through some boring reality rather than a cute dramatisation.
And that real story is competing with the modern presentation which is all about entertainment, about opinion, about personality. We’d rather pay attention to the guy with the impish grin and cool geeky glasses, or the woman with the tight dress and careful hairstyle than to a dry but real account. It’s more fun to learn about the causes of World War Two from a ten minute cartoon then from a 50-page article.
I admit not all written information will be accurate or un-opinionated. But it’s very much harder to be swayed by special effects and cool looks in a written source. A written source will provide time to think and consider. And a written source will rarely be distilled down to a simplistic sound-bite or misleading aphorism.
This willingness to take the easy route and just accept delivered truths doesn’t just apply to students doing research either. Take a good look at the Sydney Morning Herald, once a respected paper of record, and see how many stories they now lift directly from other newspapers or sources. Their story is someone else’s, relying on someone else’s fact-checking and sourcing. As a trustworthy statement in itself, it is garbage.
In this fertile environment is it any wonder that fake news is working. People are losing touch with the idea that news, or information, can be authoritative. We jump to the simple, the simplistic, the easy. And, perhaps worse, because we’re human we validate where we find ourselves by belittling and rejecting the opinions of those experts who have made an effort and dived deeper than the shiny facade.
So here’s my King Canute moment. My futile stand against the incoming tide. We should be requiring high school students to only use written primary and secondary sources of information. We shouldn’t be teaching them how to cite YouTube videos, we should be saying they can’t use them. We should do that because the only way to fight against fake news is not to try uselessly to stop it being produced, it’s to have consumers trained to think, to question, and to find the real story for themselves.