I’ve had an underlying assumption in my brain for quite some time now. I’ve assumed that what the “mainstream” tells me, be it newspapers, television, books, people and so on, is to a large extent shallow, wrong and/or misguided. This applies to many different aspects of life, for instance news reporting, diet advice, workout tips, investment guides and so on. I believe that this scepticism has served me well, as it has allowed me to avoid falling into the pitfall that many people tragically fall into. They become trapped by their trust in sources that are either wrong, unreliable or intentionally misguiding the public.
Let’s begin with a hard look at the news business. On this topic I recommend the excellent book “How to Watch TV News”. Although somewhat dated by now, I learned much from reading it. Do you for instance know what “VNRs” are? I certainly didn’t. We all know that commercial news outlets are in the money-making business. That means that their purpose isn’t to serve you factual and timely news, they want to serve their advertisers with as many eyes as possible. We all know about how the political leanings of individual journalists can taint the narrative, or how certain outlets have a heavily skewed political tilt. But the problem goes beyond such concerns. What is news if you had to define the term?
We all recognize the annoyance we feel if we accidentally stumble upon “clickbait”, that is sensationalized or intentionally misleading images and descriptions intended to lure your attention towards certain content. Clickbaiting is frowned upon because of its inherent dishonesty and the cluttering of the informational sphere it represents. Financially, news organisations are incentivized to use clickbait-style tactics. The more niche of a subject, the fewer potential people will be exposed to advertisements. Therefore unfortunately, usually only the most mainstream opinions and topics will be covered. There is room for alternate interests, as an example there has been a great diversification of TV channels. But the few mainstream channels retain the vast majority of viewership.
You, as a consumer of news is left with a narrow band of stories. Although different outlets have somewhat different angles they use to approach stories, the selection is remarkably similar. You are therefore well served by actively assuming that you’re not getting the whole story and seeking out alternate sources for news. I was quite shocked to learn that many mainstream outlets have run pre-made “news” packages made by lobbying firms without disclosing their true nature (VNRs). They might put up their own logos and insert their own reporters to front what are essentially advertisements. Apparently, this practice became known during the Bush-era, but I’ve not heard anything about it since then. To me this gives some perspective on the current debate surrounding “fake news”.
When it comes to diet advice you have to thread a fine line. We have seen the mainstream government backed nutritional tables change multiple times over the years. Suddenly eggs are bad, then they’re good for you, use butter, no margarine is better. This is our health we are talking about, so getting the correct conclusions is very important. We can’t blindly trust the government on this, remember that lobbying groups from different food related industries have a vested interest in the official advice being given out. A lot of money is at stake. At the same time, one must be sceptical regarding the credibility of other sources. Just because some guy makes a nutritional claim doesn’t make it true. The questionable credibility of the official governmental advice isn’t an endorsement of Joe’s garage health food store.
Personally, I rely on advice from people that have been vetted and recommended by other people I trust. Over the years I’ve followed some people’s thoughts on politics. I’ve seen who is credible, who one can trust on certain issues and who is not credible. When people I trust as a result of following their thinking for a long time recommend other people that gives me more confidence in the accuracy of their knowledge than if I didn’t have such a vetting process. Practically this is the best I can come up with, it certainly is no guarantee. It isn’t easy to discern what is scientifically accurate and what is food related fads.
The same applies to workout advice. Mainstream magazines, newspapers and so on are flooded with tips and tricks for the optimal workout. Nobody seems to question the seemingly contradictory nature of this advice. It follows the same pattern as food related information. What is recommended changes over time. I suspect that there is an incentive to pump out information to keep consumers guessing and craving the newest and “best” advice. Once you get an optimal routine in place, you aren’t really motivated to seek out new information. This means less revenue for businesses. Keeping consumers coming back for the latest information can be a more tempting business model. We see something similar in the news business, where an outlet will cover and push one angle of a story, only to suddenly change to keep the story from going “stale” and draw you back in so they can keep serving you advertisements.
If only providers of investment advice could be upfront and honest about their lack of certainty. All that I’ve said above about keeping the consumer coming back for more applies here as well. Ask five so-called experts cited in magazines and newspapers and you will get twelve different opinions. I’ve also always asked myself why they don’t their own money into a good stock pick instead of encouraging the public to do it. Perhaps the investment is only good if they can lure enough people into bumping the stock upwards? Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, not sound reasoned out financial advice.
I can’t provide you with a list of who you should trust on every different issue, but I can encourage you to take a system based approach to finding out where you should get your information. Research and uncover motives for giving certain advice, whether it be the originator’s financial, cultural or political biases and motivations.