Second Thoughts: Staying informed in a digital world

Commentary by Karl Weisel
U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden Public Affairs Office

Back in the 1970s as this writer worked to earn a degree in journalism, a common prediction was the swiftly approaching demise of newspapers. Industry experts warned that most periodicals would disappear within the next decade as people turned to newer forms of media.

While it has taken a little longer than predicted for printed media to vanish completely from the popular culture, there’s no denying that with fewer natural resources and much faster ways of communicating available to more and more people around the globe, printed media’s days are numbered.

For those of us who grew up in the business or became accustomed to having a printed product to spread out on Sunday mornings over a long breakfast to catch up on more in-depth coverage of the world around us, seeing newspapers fade away hasn’t been easy. That’s one of the reasons why they’ve endured — familiarity and having served for so many years as a means for a free people to bounce ideas off of one another.

And while newspapers were never truly free of editorial bias, practitioners at least were taught to do their best to be objective in their reporting and to offer a medium where contrasting views could be expressed freely and openly — credibility being the bread and butter of a respected publication.

Fast forward to 2013 where blogs, social media, talk radio and entire broadcasting networks provide the primary sources of news and views for large segments of the population. When false and inaccurate information is presented today, it is quickly shared millions of times over to become, if not accepted fact, a strongly suspected version of reality.

“By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, journalism keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community,” observed Oscar Wilde more than a century ago. Or as Gore Vidal once wrote, “At any given moment, public opinion is a chaos of superstition, misinformation and prejudice.”

What held true for printed media, remains true for other forms of two-way communication today. While everyone tends to favor that which reinforces or underscores one’s own beliefs and opinions, it is even more important today to seek out diversity, to become truly informed about the surrounding world and to consider the ideas of those with whom one might not at first find common ground.

It’s how compromise, participatory democracy and problem-solving function. It’s how societies evolve to continue to seek ways to safeguard and serve their constituents.

The mere fact that much of what passes for communication today is a showcase of poorly articulated ideas, misspelled or absent words leading to miscommunication and blindly repeated half truths makes it ever more critical that individuals invest the time to seek a wide spectrum of ideas, facts and truly informed opinions.

As Benjamin Franklin noted, “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise.” Or better yet, in the words of Warren Buffet, “A public opinion poll is no substitute for thought.”

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