Biased and Unreliable: Critically Evaluating the News Media
1. Where do most people get information about the world in which they live? Most of us get information from people around us, our friends and family. This information mostly comes in the form of gossip, which may or may not be completely true. We also get information from various news media. Some of the news media present information written by professional journalists or scholars, but most news media sources offer only the subjective opinions or gossip of regular people who have no specialized training. Do you know what news media sources of information are true or false? Can you tell the difference between professional journalism or amateur gossip?
2. Most people don't know much about the world they live in. We trust authoritative individuals or like-minded groups rather than critically analyze information to decide if it is true or false. But trusting information, rather than knowing information, is very dangerous. We need to be able to critically evaluate the news media in order to know what is true or false. There is an important connection between literacy, critical thinking, and political freedom. Democratic societies rely on the open and free exchange of ideas. But not all ideas are equally true or useful. Many people don't realize that traditional news media sources deliver biased and false information, which makes almost all news media stories highly unreliable forms of knowledge. This chapter will explain why.
4.1 Trusting Tradition and Authority
3. Most people trust authority figures, like parents, teachers, priests, business leaders, and politicians. These figures usually work for an authoritative institution, which people also trust as an "official" source of knowledge, like a school, university, church, successful business, or a government agency. Most people also instinctively trust like-minded people who have the same worldview, which includes shared cultural identity, language, belief system, and values. These worldviews are often officially represented by political parties, religious groups, academic disciplines, or professional organizations. We naturally trust any information that supports our established worldview, whether it is actually true or not. We find it very difficult to accept new information that would call into question previously held beliefs. We get most of our information from authority figures in the form of "common sense," which is not really knowledge because we don't really know how or why a claim is true. We just believe those authorities who we trust. Trusting common sense is dangerous because we don't actually know how or why something is true, so we simply can't see or understand truth or lies.
4. Besides trusting authority figures, most people turn to the news media for information, especially about the world beyond one's local community. Every society has a few traditional sources of news, which most people trust to some degree. In America these traditional news sources include newspapers, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, television shows, CBS News and 60 Minutes, or television networks, like CNN or Fox News. Each country around the world has its own traditional news media outlets. In some places, the news media is directly subsidized by the government, like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in England. Or it can be partly funded by the government and partly funded by private donations, like the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) in the U.S. Most of these traditional news media sources employ professional journalists to write and report the news. People usually trust news media sources that offer a shared cultural worldview (often defined by political ideology or religious affiliation). But increasingly, people turn to news media for entertainment and escape rather than information.
4.2 Getting the News: The Evolution of Social Media
5. Where does new information, "the news," come from? Ultimately, it comes from people who have done something important or from people who directly observed an important event. The news is usually first spread through word of mouth (what we often call "gossip"), and then it gets written down and published, often via official media outlets. Since the 17th century, printed newspapers have been the primary source of written news in the western world. Books are also an important source of news, but because books take so long to write, produce, and distribute, the news is not so "new" once the book is published, a fact which makes all books somewhat outdated by the time they are available to read. Because newspapers are so cheap to produce and quick to distribute, for several centuries they have been the single most important source for daily news. But since the mid-19th century, several new types of news media have been developed to compete with the newspaper. Each new media development (first radio, then television, and recently the internet) delivered the news quicker, to a larger audience, over greater distances. Each new form of technology caused the public to shift its attention and trust towards the new media and away from printed newspapers. After flourishing for over four hundred years, 20th century television finally eclipsed newspapers as the major source of news for most people in developed countries.
6. Since the development of television, and more recently the internet, and due to the increased cost of paper, printing and shipping, scholars and journalists have been wondering if printed newspapers might eventually become extinct. But surprisingly, print newspapers still remain a popular source of news all over the world, although more so in developing countries, like China and India, and less so in developed countries, like Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea. While most experts see the internet overtaking both television and print newspapers as the primary source of news within the next few decades, no one seriously believes that the newspaper will disappear anytime soon (Bulletins from the future, 2011; Fallows, 2010; "The strange survival," 2010).
7. It has also become fashionable these days to get excited about new forms of "social media," as if these developments are a brand new phenomenon. In fact, social media simply refers to any technology, or tool, that facilitates communication and social interaction. There have been many different types of "new" social technologies that have excited people over previous centuries, starting with the book and the newspaper (as discussed in chapters 1 and 2). Each new media "alter[ed] the physics of perception, changing the ways that people saw, experienced, and understood the material world and their place within it" (Ewen, 1996, p. 67). The first "new" modern social media technology to rival the newspaper was the telegraph, which was co-invented in the 19th century by Samuel Morse and others, and was later developed and commercialized by the Western Union Company. This advanced technology spread the news almost instantly across large distances and connected people in faraway places as was never before possible in human history (Howe, 2007, pp. 693-97; Blondheim, 1994, pp. 11-29).
8. Later in the 19th century, the radio was invented. By the early 20th century, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had developed relatively inexpensive radios for the home, which enabled this new technology to rival newspapers as the most popular medium for news and entertainment. In 1921, only five radio stations existed in the world, but by 1927, there were several hundred stations. By 1949 there were 1,600 radio stations in the United States alone (Schudson & Tifft, 2005, p. 26; Patterson, 1996, p. 348). Politicians, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, were quick to realize the vast political potential of the radio, and they began to bypass newspaper reporters and hostile newspapers to speak directly to the public (Schudson & Tifft, 2005, p. 26).
9. Other "new" forms of media appeared in the 20th century. The magazine, like Time (1923), Newsweek (1933) and U.S. News & World Report (1933), became a popular medium for current events, although this form of media was mostly read by educated audiences who wanted more substance than a typical newspaper provided. Unlike the daily newspaper, magazines were published once a week or month. They took longer to produce because they offered a broader synthesis and deeper analysis of current affairs. Magazines catered to a middle class audience. They offered an elevated focus on style and culture, reviewing art, literature, music, drama, and dance (Teachout, 2002). And they included lots of photographs, which were popular with audiences, and which helped develop a new type of news called photojournalism (Ewen, 1996, p. 53; Schudson & Tifft, 2005, p. 25).
10. Another form of news media developed in the early 20th century was the partisan "think tank." This political institution brought academic researchers together with political strategists to create public policy recommendations based on science (McGann, 2005; Troy, 2012). A think tank often uses scientific methods to research public issues, but not always. Think tanks are funded to support partisan values and enact partisan legislation, so think tank research is often openly biased. A director of a think tank once explained how these institutions use “the trappings of scholarship” to “put a scientific cover on positions arrived at otherwise,” usually because of political ideology (Crawford, 2009, p. 108).
11. One of the oldest and most respected think tanks in the United States is the liberal Brookings Institution, which was founded in 1916. More conservative think tanks were developed during the Cold War. The center-right Rand corporation was founded in 1948. The conservative Heritage Foundation was later founded in 1973. The mission statement of the Heritage Foundation is to "formulate and promote conservative public policies" (as cited in Alterman, 2003, p. 84). Burton Pines, a past vice president of the Heritage Foundation, said, "We're not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time. Our role is to provide conservative public-policymakers with arguments to bolster our side" (as cited in Alterman, 2003, p. 83). While many think tanks produce quality scholarship, this information is often compromised by the political agenda of the organization.
12. From about 45 think tanks during World War II, there are now over 1,800 think tanks in the United States today. Most focus on single policy issues, like the environment, energy, or policy in the Middle East, but many are comprehensive in scope. While the majority of think tanks founded before 1960 employed mostly academic researchers with PhDs, more recently founded think tanks have been enlisting greater numbers of partisan thinkers and writers without academic credentials, many of whom transitioned from political careers into "research" careers (Alterman, 2003, p. 83).
13. Because of their political bias, the quality of think tank research varies greatly. Some think tanks produce exceptional research and can be considered "universities without students" (Troy, 2012). But many of these organizations produce no research at all, publishing only partisan talking points to help members of their political party get elected. Political influence is, of course, the primary purpose of all think tanks. In fact, some of the more successful, like the conservative Heritage Foundation, have seen more than 60% of their policy recommendations adopted by presidential administrations.
14. By the 1950s, the TV was mass produced and began to become a fixture in the American living room. In 1948, only 172,000 households in the U.S. owned a TV, but by 1952, TVs were in 15.3 million U.S. households, and this number increased to 32 million in 1955, representing around 75 percent of all homes (Patterson, 1996, p. 348). By 1960, over 87 percent of American homes had a television, in what economist Jeffrey D. Sachs (2011) called "the fastest adoption of a major new technology in history" (p. 138).
15. Serious news reporting and coverage of political campaigns became an important function of all TV networks. Americans were turning to TV news as their primary source of information by 1963 (Shenkman, 2008, p. 102). However, most of the programming on this new device was created to entertain American audiences, not inform them. For example, the TV quiz show was one of the most popular early forms of television entertainment, until the public was scandalized by news that they were rigged (Goodwin, 1988). Later, the sitcom, sometimes called the "soap opera," became the major genre of t.v. entertainment, and these shows helped give rise to another powerful news medium, the t.v. advertisement.
16. The sitcom was actually created by advertisers in the 1940s as a way to get people to listen to the radio for extended periods of time, thereby exposing listeners to multiple product advertisements, which helped dramatically expand sales. The reason radio sitcoms were called "soap operas" was that soap and other cleaning products were marketed to housewives who would listen to the radio while they cleaned the house and took care of the children. The basic formats of the news program, the sitcom, and the advertisement were all first created for the radio and then later developed into their current forms on the television.
17. Up until the early 20th century, news media were primarily focused on delivering information for civic purposes. But over the last half century, many new forms of media have been developed solely for the purpose of entertainment and social networking, not for information about current affairs or for participation in political processes (Jacoby, 2009, p. 125). These various new forms of entertainment media include movies, music, music videos, video games, entertainment magazines, and the internet. The new social networking media include blogs; social networking websites, like Facebook and LinkedIn; and micro-blogs, like Twitter.
4.3 Conflicting Purposes: Inform or Entertain?
18. Because news media have always been businesses that want to make a profit, the separating "line" between news-as-information rather than news-as-entertainment has never been clear. But over the 20th century, it seems that many news media organizations have tended to focus more on making money and entertaining than on informing citizens for the public good (Jacoby, 2009, p. 125). Some news organizations, like The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post, deliver high quality, evidence-based reporting with rigorous documentation and fact-checking processes, but these organizations are the exceptions rather than the rule. As many scholars have pointed out, by the end of the 20th century that "line between news and entertainment, already blurred, became fuzzier still" (Schudson & Tifft, 2005, p. 38). Many media critics refer to the artful blending of information and entertainment as “infotainment,” mindless amusement or political commentary masquerading as news (Jacoby, 2009, p. 262).
19. The various forms of "new media" are changing the way people think about and access news, especially with the development of the internet. But these new forms of social media should be handled with caution. For the most part, these sources should rarely be used in an academic paper. This is because most "new media" delivers highly unreliable and heavily biased information, although some forms of new media are much more unreliable than others. Some news organizations have rigorous fact-checking and documentation processes, but most media organizations publish anything that will make money. H. L. Mencken (1914), one of the most famous reporters of the early 20th century, sarcastically noted, "One of the principle marks of an educated man, indeed, is the fact that he does not take his opinions from newspapers." Take Twitter, for example. Due to its short and constrained format, it is almost impossible to say anything half-way intelligent on Twitter. Thus, most Twitter users "tweet" incomplete thoughts in idiosyncratic codes, which outsiders find hard to decipher. Scholars of digital media are currently trying to investigate who would want to write or read these "tweets"?
20. Almost everyone has access to social media these days, airing all sorts of personal opinions about everything from what you’re eating or wearing, to your plans for the weekend. People are even sharing the "news" that they are bored and have nothing to say! About 64 percent of Americans use some form of social media. The most popular is Facebook, which 51 percent of Americans use ("Between main street," 2012, p. 5). The public broadcasting of all these personal opinions has produced what The Economist has called a "baffling blizzard of buzz" ("Too much buzz," 2011).
21. Let alone true, are all these opinions even real? Did you know that between 25 to 30 percent of online product reviews are fake (Lindstrom, 2011, p. 113; Streitfeld, 2012)? People are paid to write bogus reviews, which most of us assume come from real consumers or professional reviewers. Sometimes you may want to listen to biased information, when talking to friends, or when trying to understand personal opinions about important issues. For this purpose, using the internet, blogs, Facebook, or Twitter could be appropriate. But even then, social media should be used cautiously because you never know if people are being honest. Most seem to intuitively know this, as only 30-34% of Americans trust social media sites or blogs ("Between main street," 2012, p. 6). Besides, even if you want to know about public opinions, there are more sophisticated and valid ways of measuring opinions, like using survey research conducted by professional or academic organizations (Igo, 2007).
22. The internet and social media are exciting new ways to communicate quickly to a wide audience, and these new media forms were given a lot of positive publicity as a force for citizen journalism and democratic change in the Arab revolutions of 2011 ("Internet democracy," 2011). However, on the whole, these sources should be considered highly unreliable given that they represent such biased personal points of view. The internet is a useful tool, but as Susan Jacoby (2009) has pointed out, it can “foster the illusion that the ability to retrieve words and numbers with the click of a mouse also confers the capacity to judge whether those words and numbers represent truth, lies, or something in between” (p. xviii). Always remain vigilant and skeptical of online information.
23. Yet we should not entirely discount the internet and social media as valid news sources. These media also allow users to exchange valid types of information, such as e-books, articles and documentary videos. But in these cases, the internet or social media would not be considered the source of the information, just the medium by which it is exchanged. Social media and the internet can thus act like digital libraries, a virtual depot, where we can rapidly exchange traditional and valid forms of information. It is important to remember, the internet is an open access medium containing a wide variety of information, some of it good, but most of it heavily biased and highly unreliable. The internet is no more or less reliable than the public street corner or a local book store. It contains many different types of individuals and organizations with many different types of ideas. Some deserve our attention and careful consideration, but many do not.
4.4 Understanding News Media Bias
24. How do we decide which news is true or false? This is a difficult question that has always plagued the news media. The recent development of new forms of social media and the proliferation of news organizations, websites, personal blogs, and Twitter accounts has only intensified the importance of these questions. First we need to remember, as journalist Walter Lippmann (1922/1997) once explained, "news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished" (p. 226). To find the truth in any news story, we must first understand "the limited nature" of all news media (p. 228). The news is a complex, contradictory, and profit-focused business that tries to make sense of a highly political world. We can't expect much truth under such circumstances.
25. For every story, there seem to be multiple sets of facts and multiple interpretations (Hirschorn, 2010). Journalists almost never agree on what happened and why. We are also bombarded by advertisers, public relations firms, and political leaders who seem to invent their own versions of the truth, which often conflicts with the views of journalists. Many public relations (PR) and advertising professionals seem to have a "contempt for truth" (Ewen, 1996, p. 80). Ivy L. Lee, a founder of PR, famously argued, "Besides, What is a fact? The effort to state an absolute fact is simply an attempt to...give you my interpretation of the facts" (as cited in Ewen, 1996, p. 81). Did you know that in 2008 in the United States there were over three times as many PR operatives spinning corporate sponsored "news" than there were professional journalists reporting actual news (Sullivan, 2011)?
26. Everyone seems to have their own version of the truth. There seems to be no way to decide if anyone is really right or wrong. Marvin and Meyer (2005) argue, "Just as printing destroyed the illusion of an authoritative biblical text and challenged a Catholic hierarchy, conflicting journalistic accounts cast doubt on the press's ability to present the world with authority" (p. 401). Some journalists are sincere, but biased. Many are just plain ignorant. Professor of Journalism Eric Alterman (2003) explained, "most reporters are ignorant about most things, which is rarely seen as a barrier to coverage. Ignorance is not the same thing as bias" (p. 105). Ignorant journalists selling news is an old phenomenon. The famous early 20th century journalist H. L. Mencken criticized the press corps as "rogues and charlatans" who sell "intolerable incompetence and quackery" (Teachout, 2002, pp. 228, 1). Few journalists have ever stood up for the truth. Most are afraid of criticizing each other, their editors, corporations, or political leaders, even when it means attacking outright lies. Reporters also fear being labeled "biased" by political opponents, which could undermine their appeal or authority with certain audiences (Poniewozik, 2012).
27. There is so much confusion and outright lying in the news media that a whole new type of news organization has been recently created just to expose the lies of other news organizations and our political leaders. On the one hand, you have satirical news shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, which point out lies and hypocrisy in order to cynically laugh (Bates, 2011; Moyers, 2007; McGrath, 2012). On the other hand, you have encyclopedia-type news organizations, like PolitiFact.com (see article on Politifact's mission) or FactCheck.org, which rate the truthfulness of statements made by politicians and other journalists, including the fake journalists like Jon Stewart ("Political fact-checking," 2011). The public is now pressured to wade through multiple and conflicting news stories in order to compare different opinions in order to find some truth ("Political fact-checking," 2011). Recent evidence suggests that people are not doing a good job of finding "true" news because most people believe a lot of false information (for example, see this recent article). As The Wilson Quarterly recently reported, we are living in a "disinformation age" (The Wilson Quarterly, 2018).
28. While over half of American voters say they have heard information they consider misleading or false, they don't seem to know how to find truthful information. Around 88 percent of Americans think that fake and misleading news has caused widespread confusion over basic facts (Barthel, Mitchell, & Holcomb, 2016). One voter fretted, "They want you to vote intelligently, but how do you find the facts" (as cited in "Medicare," 2012, p. 32)? Around 30 to 90 percent of Americans have false beliefs about important political issues (depending on the issue), largely due to trusting misleading (or lying) sources of news (Ramsay, et. al., 2010; Popkin, 1994, p. 86).
29. Part of the problem lies in purposeful deception. For as long as there have been newspapers, there have been "fake news" printed alongside factual news (read about the history of fake news). Even in the 21st century, there are a large number of “fake news” websites peddling false, and sometimes outlandish, stories. Political operatives create some fake news stories. They want to attack an opponent, support a candidate, or influence an election. Some stories are just created by savvy teenagers trying to make money by duping stupid people into reading fake stories. One such teenager claimed, “A fake news article is way more opened than any other” (as cited in Cimili & Satter, 2016, para. 1). The proliferation of fake news has lead to a “bewildering assault of misinformation and propaganda,” according to Cimili & Satter (2016, para. 18). Many people can’t tell the difference between fake news and real news, or they just don't care. Alarmingly, one such gullible person acted on false reports of an underground slavery ring under a pizza parlor by showing up at that restaurant with a loaded rifle, threatening the owners and customers (Dvorak, 2016). Do you know the difference between real news and fake news? Sadly, most students do not.
30. But even when accurate news stories are found and corroborated, they are "often disturbingly short on detail" (Garber, 2008, p. 44). While some news stories "tell the truth," it usually isn't "the whole truth" (p. 44). Bias can be detected in both what is and what isn’t said. The media serves as a "gatekeeper," talking only about particular issues deemed important and framing those issues with a particular spin. The news media shape not only how we think, but also what we think about (Popkin, 1994, pp. 85-87). Awareness of such bias has created a lot of cynicism. Many people no longer trust news sources, and they seem to trust political leaders even less (Ramsay, et. al, 2010).
31. Since the 20th century, many newspapers and other new forms of media have explicitly sought to act in the general "public interest" by informing citizens with factual information. But this public mission has often been compromised by other considerations, like profits and political power. Professional journalists argue that the news media is supposed to inform citizens from a neutral perspective so people can have the knowledge they need to act responsibly, especially in a democratic country like the United States of America. Many professional journalists take their political mission very seriously by using their factual reporting to influence legislation and inform voters (Schorr, 2005). However, this mission to act in the interest of the "public good" has always been complicated by other interests, like business and political concerns. Many times a journalist will claim to be working on behalf of the public interest while publishing biased reports meant to help a politician or political party.
32. Regardless of any noble claim to serve the public, most news organizations are private companies seeking to maximize profits, and for these organizations money is the primary objective. The profit motive often leads news companies to publish stories that will sell newspapers or increase television viewers (and thus advertising revenue), and conversely, news organizations will sometimes not publish controversial or boring material, however true and important it may be. Profit-motivated journalism has been called "yellow journalism" because it usually exaggerates or sensationalizes the facts to make the story more interesting, or in some cases, completely fabricates a fabulous story (see example). Many times the commercial motives of a news company can conflict with or compromise the democratic goal of informing all citizens of the general public good (Picard, 2005; Marvin & Meyer, 2005). Sometimes raising revenues by pleasing advertisers is more important than investigating and communicating the truth, especially if the truth involves discrediting a powerful leader or damaging the reputation of a successful company.
33. Perhaps one of the most famous cases of business interests trumping the public good was the story of Jeffrey Wigand (Brenner, 1996), who was a scientist and former head of Research & Development for a cigarette company. He was one of the first to publicly prove not only that cigarettes were unhealthy and caused cancer, but that cigarette companies lied for decades about the health risks of their products. The cigarette companies exerted powerful pressure to discredit Wigand and threatened to sue the CBS news program 60 Minutes if it broadcast Wigand's story. The investigative reporter behind Wigand's story was Lowell Bergman, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and distinguished professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Bergman tried to get the whole truth broadcast on air, but CBS made a business decision to avoid expensive litigation and forced 60 Minutes to drastically edit the interview. This decision caused a fury in the press. Bergman quit the show (under pressure from management). Eventually, numerous journalists corroborated Wigand's story, and CBS was heavily criticized and discredited by the journalistic community for holding back the truth. In 1999, these events were dramatically captured in the award winning film The Insider, directed by Michael Mann.
34. But business interests are not the only source of bias in the news media. Acting in the "public interest" is also complicated by the fact that there is no single "public" and no single "interest." In the 21st century, most people live in pluralistic societies composed of multiple "publics," each with different worldviews, beliefs, and values. Therefore, there are many competing "interests," and objective, fact-based journalism is bound to upset some group for one reason or another. Diverse groups of citizens continually argue over their competing worldviews and political interests. Often, we align ourselves with a particular social or political cause and we band together into "interest groups," or like-minded people who support the same issue. People tend to listen to only those people with similar values and ignore (or attack) those people with different values. Thus, public debates often turn into shouting matches rather than actual discussions, and in the ensuing conflict, important issues cannot get solved.
35. Particular news organizations often privilege the beliefs or values of one interest group over another, which is called cultural or political "bias." Even if a news organization tries to be neutral, it often ends up offending some community by being noncommittal to any cause and sitting indecisively in the middle of the road. Thus, in order to fully understand the news media, and to decide who has true or false information, we need to first understand that all news organizations are politically biased in some way, and being officially "unbiased" is actually just another form of bias. (A full discussion on the nature of subjective bias and how it affects knowledge will come in chapter 7). Even scientific researchers working within academic disciplines are biased; however, as we will discuss later in this book, academics strive to control their subjectivity, clearly state their bias, rationally explain it, and leave it up to the reader to decide.
36. Rarely does the news media or business media expose manipulation and outright lies. In fact, the news media often reproduces such misinformation. Journalism professor Eric Alterman (2012) claims we live in a "post-truth" society (p. 11). In such an environment, he argues, American journalism "ultimately fails to justify itself in its most basic purpose: to ensure accountability for citizens and their leaders and to offer the kind of information necessary to help voters make an educated choice for the future of their country" (p. 11). In the 21st century, news media can rarely be trusted, and merely trusting a traditional source of authority is dangerous because we don't know what information is actually true or false. If you read news media sources then you always need to be cautious. Someone may be (and probably is) trying to manipulate your opinion. In order to find the truth and make an informed opinion, it is always best to turn to a scientific study produced by academics working at a research university.
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To cite this chapter in a reference page using APA:
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To cite this chapter in an in-text citation using APA:
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© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016