Deconstructing our dominant, elitist notions of "credibility"
We've been taught to value certain types of information more than others, but it's time to question these evaluations—which are rooted in institutional biases.
What if our dominant measures of “credibility” have just become a facade to mask our institutional biases and systemic injustices?
Here's an overview of what I cover in this thought piece deconstructing ‘credibility’:
How mass media filters skew public perceptions of reality;
The limitations of western science and the institutional biases behind what receives funding;
The sham of ‘objectivity’ and using the ‘neutral’ tone to signify trustworthiness;
The elitism of basing credibility on the ‘pedigreed and privileged intelligentsia’;
The illusion of political centrism as ‘least biased’ and ‘fact-based reporting’ as ultimate truths
It's my longest piece yet, but I promise I left the fluff out, so hopefully it'll also be among the most impactful you've received from me. Enjoy, and thank you for your ongoing support!
How mass media filters skew public perceptions of reality.
In their book Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky say, “A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public”. (Source)
Since the public's perceptions of the world are largely shaped by the mass media machine, it is critical to understand how it works. Here's a really helpful short video that breaks down the five filters that skew the narratives of what gets published across the media landscape.
In the U.S., just six corporations own over 90% of media companies. While this says nothing of the journalists whose work gets published across the outlets, the question it does raise is: What sorts of self-censorship may occur as the result of the majority of media being powered by the media-industrial-complex—under the control of mega-corporations whose financial and political interests are generally at odds with everyday people's?
“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.” — Noam Chomsky.
Most major media companies rely on corporate ad dollars to operate. This means that the general public's attention becomes the product sold to advertisers.
As I alluded to in my article sharing why I decided to move away from being an ‘influencer’ mostly sponsored by brands (and why getting direct readership support is critical!), the larger a media outlet, the more reliant it becomes on larger and larger corporate sponsors who can afford their increasing advertising rates. As such, the biggest media outlets today inevitably depend on some of the largest corporations’ ad dollars to function. They enter a mutualistic relationship which furthers the centralization of power.
But at their core, sustainability and social justice require a decentralization of power, rendering this dominant media business model at odds with those greater goals.
An example of what has manifested as a result of this is that even liberal media, which acknowledges the reality of the climate crisis, won't go beyond touting the ‘renewable’ energy transition as the solution.
But ‘green’ energy is not really green. While the sun's rays and the wind may be ‘renewable’, the infrastructure needed to convert those forms of energy into ones usable by our civilization is not. The transition towards ‘clean’ energy, while allowing privileged communities powered entirely by ‘renewable’ energy to breathe fresher air and feel better about themselves, leads to a mere re-allocation of pollution to invisibilized mining communities in ‘developing’ countries. It just outsources who faces the brunt of environmental injustice.
Also, just as there are finite amounts of fossil fuels, there are also finite amounts of the rare earth metals needed to build ‘green’ technologies—which have a limited lifespan.
While such realizations can be difficult to process, we must confront this reality so that while some people work on the short-term climate solution of moving us away from fossil fuels (and using ‘renewable’ energy as a stepping stone), we'll also have more people working on the systemic solutions needed to turn our ship around.
But instead of highlighting these uncomfortable truths, the mass media sphere mostly sidelines them—perhaps because they reveal the inadequacy of us simply substituting one energy source with another to power the same insatiable appetite for endless economic growth. In fact, there have been concerted efforts by people funded by the ‘green’ billionaires—who benefit from having the whole world move towards relying on their technologies instead of fossil fuels—working to discredit information highlighting the shortcomings of ‘green’ energy.
One must wonder: Why is it that most ‘environmentalists’ (many of whom are very well-educated) today believe that switching to ‘green’ energy will solve our ecological and climate crises—as is the presumption which underlies the Green New Deal that so many support without questioning?
Manufacturing Consent does not suggest that people whose voices are amplified across mass media actively lie in order to fit the narratives friendly to their superiors. Rather, it implies that the people whose inherent interests and positions on issues already align with the prevailing stances of corporatism, imperialism, and neoliberalism, are more likely to be promoted and published—while voices of dissent are more likely to be marginalized.
Alas, it is not so much what gets published by mass media that is the problem, because having a diversity of perspectives is important. Rather, it is what gets left out that should be of concern.
This speaks to the importance of supplementing one's media diet with alternative, independent media, which rely on direct audience support to function—though often are still freely accessible to the public.
That said, because the barrier to entry for independent publishing is so low, we still have to approach everything with critical eyes, taking time to get to know who the authors are and their worldviews—so we can properly calibrate our interpretation of what they say, knowing the lenses through which they speak.
*To this point, this is why I started this ad-free newsletter, why I'm working on building reader- and listener-supported platforms, and why your direct subscription means so much!*
The limitations of western science and the institutional biases behind what receives funding
“Show me a research study to back up your point,” people often say when trying to judge the credibility of one's arguments. While western science has taught us so much about the world, it's critical to acknowledge its limitations—and how it distorts our understanding of our world's problems and their solutions.
One example is how western science attempts to isolate, reduce, and objectify what it seeks to understand. In the realm of ecology, this conventional lens often leads to an inability to explain synergies and holism—the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Its focus on objectivity also results in a failure to recognize the full human experience of how we relate to and engage with the world.
As Indigenous scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass:
“My natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide. But science is rigorous in separating the observer from the observed, and the observed from the observer. Why two flowers are beautiful together would violate the division necessary for objectivity…
A printmaker I know showed me that if you stare for a long time at a block of yellow and then shift your gaze to a white sheet of paper, you will see it, for a moment, as violet. This phenomenon—the colored afterimage—occurs because there is energetic reciprocity between purple and yellow pigments, which goldenrod and asters knew well before we did…
Their striking contrast when they grow together makes them the most attractive target in the whole meadow, a beacon for bees. Growing together, both receive more pollinator visits than they would if they were growing alone… Why are they beautiful together? It is a phenomenon simultaneously material and spiritual, for which we need all wavelengths, for which we need depth perception…
Native scholar Greg Cajete has written that in indigenous ways of knowing, we understand a thing only when we understand it with all four aspects of our being: mind, body, emotion, and spirit. I came to understand quite sharply when I began my training as a scientist that science privileges only one, possibly two, of those ways of knowing: mind and body.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Then, there are the more well-known critiques of science—that new research constantly challenges previous findings (suggesting that people must be cautious in drawing absolute conclusions) and that every study varies in its reliability. While scientists themselves are often very conservative in making generalizations, their studies’ implications get picked up by the press—then exaggerated and disproportionately pushed by industries and corporations that benefit from promoting those conclusions.
More importantly, there is an institutional bias that underlies the fields of inquiry that receive more funding—versus the ones that get overlooked.
In my interview with Charles Eisenstein, he remarked:
“Where is the funding to run clinical studies on something like The Buhner Protocol or Artemesia, which is being used all over Africa to treat COVID-19—just like they've used that to treat malaria and had it be suppressed by the pharmaceutical-industrial-complex? Or [where is the funding to run clinical studies] on the herbal formulas being used in China to very successfully prevent and treat COVID-19?
I'm not going to declare right now that these things are effective. All I'm asking is: Where are the hundreds of millions of research dollars going into these to match the hundreds of millions, or even billions, in research into pharmaceuticals? …
It's not because scientists are evil; it's because there's relatively no funding, publishing opportunities, or academic promotions available if you're studying things that can't be patented or can't be made into profitable genes or that don't fit into the paradigm of killing something as the solution of illness.”
Across our problem-solving industries, research dollars disproportionately go into scalable and even patentable solutions and technologies that may be very profitable for investors. Then, the corporations backing such innovations are able to spend more marketing dollars to build up hype and make media headlines.
As reflected in climate dialogues, technologically driven, often patentable solutions—such as lab-grown meats, carbon capture, or ‘green’ energy—end up receiving the greatest publicity as the answers to our ecological crises. Meanwhile, time-tested, though decentralized solutions focused on giving back, such as supporting Native land protection, get shoved aside.
Who is going to pay huge sums of money to drive publicity around the fact that Indigenous peoples make up 6% of our global population but steward 80% of the world's biodiversity—critical to addressing mass extinction and the climate crisis? What moneyed interests will use their dollars to support Indigenous sovereignty and community healing—which cannot be capitalized off of nor seen as investment opportunities?
Are we really able to solve our social and ecological crises using the same extractive mindset that created the problems to begin with?
The sham of ‘objectivity’ and using the ‘neutral’ tone to signify trustworthiness
“Behind every report, every feature, every news item, lies a worldview rooted in assumptions ontological (what’s real?), epistemological (what’s true?), methodological (how do we find out?), and moral (why does it matter?). Or, to put it in Gelauffian terms, all news comes from a position…
Why does the news always call bombings by ISIS ‘terrorist attacks’ and those by Western governments ‘bombardments’? Because the editors take the position that that’s what they are…
Why does the news always frame the growth of the economy as something positive and not as a disaster for the climate, the environment, or the corals in the ocean? Because the editors take the position that economic growth is good.
So when an editor claims not to take a position on the news, he or she is making the most basic misrepresentation possible.
Objective journalism, defined as not taking a position or having an opinion, has become precisely the opposite of what it was originally intended to be. Today, it equates to unquestioningly repeating the opinions of the powerful. By leaving the position-taking to the public, we reduce our task as journalists to issuing press releases on behalf of elites.
In the original concept, in other words, the method is objective, not the journalist. The key was in the discipline of the craft, not the aim.” –The Correspondent.
Journalists often strive to be as ‘objective’ as possible in their storytelling, masking their own emotions, opinions, and personhood as best as possible—since objectivity, or the illusion of neutrality, is today deemed a signifier of credibility and integrity.
But the initial goal of journalistic objectivity was never about the writer as a person— it was simply meant to guide the methodologies of obtaining information.
So the tone of neutrality—often celebrated in traditional media—does not equate with credibility.
“The impartial voice employed by many news organizations—that familiar, supposedly neutral style of news writing—is not a fundamental principle of journalism. Rather, it is an often helpful device news organizations use to highlight that they are trying to produce something obtained by objective methods.
…this neutral voice, without a discipline of verification, creates a veneer covering something hollow. Journalists who select sources to express what is really their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in a form of deception...” –American Press Institute.
I now find it very hard to read or listen to traditional media that tell stories with that ‘neutral’, robotic tone. Because I want to know who the storytellers are and what their relationship is to the stories they're sharing. After all, trustworthiness in the human experience has always been founded on relationships—understanding people's worldviews, passions, life experiences, and motivations.
The ability to connect with the storyteller is what allows us to critically calibrate the information we receive from them.
It is human to grow to trust other humans through knowing them. And yet, the dominant culture has taught us to determine trustworthiness based on how well the authors are able to mask their identities and feelings—an ideal instilled into the most credentialed and prestigious journalists educated by elite institutions.
Just like how western science aims to objectify, reduce, and remove the full human experience of the observer, western journalism parallels in seeking to do the same.
But what does it lose in striving for this impossible ideal—that invisibilizes the unique lenses of the storyteller?
The elitism of basing credibility on the ‘pedigreed and privileged intelligentsia’
Why is it that journalists can go into frontline communities dealing with climate catastrophes—often for just a few days to observe and gather quotes—to publish about them, and yet those very people being reported on wouldn't qualify to publish their own stories and perspectives in the same established outlets? Environmental journalist Janice Cantieri—who spent nine months living in Kiribati to collaborate with the local communities on storytelling—shared that such extractive approaches to journalism can lead to narratives that center on victimhood rather than resilience.
How would this shift if those facing the struggles being reported on had the full agency to fully shape their own storylines?
More broadly, what happens when corporate media, reporting on current events for public understanding, were dominated by perspectives of privilege? We already debunked the idea of human objectivity. Therefore, the worldviews, life experiences, and opinions of the authors and reporters matter—even if they attempt to hide them.
As the proletarian thinktank and journal Hampton Think notes:
“We are indifferent to traditional structures dominated by the pedigreed and privileged intelligentsia. Our members are passionate and probing members of the commons who believe that intelligent analysis exists throughout the socioeconomic spectrum, and the only thing that separates those who own a public voice and those who do not is varying degrees of privilege.
Thus, credentials earned and given through dominant society are often nothing more than products of privilege; and for that reason alone, perspectives and analyses coming from these credentials/privilege are often presented in a way that opposes the public-at-large (the working class).” –Hampton Think.
The point to note here is that elitist judgments of credibility can undermine our abilities to understand and address our social injustices—because they give more weight to the perspectives of people for whom the current system privileges.
The illusion of political centrism as ‘least biased’ and ‘fact-based reporting’ as ultimate truths
People often use sites like MediaBiasFactCheck.com to rate the credibility of various outlets—with a political scale ranging from ‘extreme left’ to ‘extreme right’. Outlets placed in the middle, viewed as ‘least biased’ and/or the most balanced, are deemed most trustworthy.
But since when was centrism considered to be the least biased? Political centrism is a bias in and of itself.
To deduce that this centrist position is the most trustworthy—what those in power would like people to believe—is to favor the status quo that has failed to serve the majority.
Another measurement used to rate the credibility of media outlets is how much they value “fact-based reporting”. There is nothing wrong with valuing facts. It's something we should all aspire to.
But the question to raise is: Who gets to decide what is fact or fiction, and when should the primary sources be challenged on the information they give?
“Fact-checking has become a weapon of ideology and misinformation—the most deceptive weapon of all because it bills itself as something that is supposed to tell the truth.” –David Sirota.
In 2003, former U.S. President Bush told the public: “Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq’s neighbors and against Iraq’s people.”
It was a lie that led to a devastating war that destroyed communities and lands and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. And yet, anyone who questioned what Bush or the intelligence community said then was deemed a conspiracist needing to be silenced, and the press saw the justification for invading Iraq as factual.
So again, there's no denying that facts are important. But we haev to keep in mind that ‘fact-checkers’ are also human beings, and ‘facts’ provided by the supposedly most credible sources still need to be challenged.
“Not only are these [established media outlets like NYT, WaPo, etc.] being rammed down the throats of anyone who participates in elite academic institutions in the U.S. or is a member of the managerial class that dominaes urban cores… not only is there a peer pressure to adopt the prevailing liberal, interventionist viewpoint, you also have to see them as absolutely ‘objective’ and not ideological.
You have to see them as a measure of journalistic excellence and not an instrument of reinforcing the status quo or a device for manufacturing consent, rendering Empire and the ideology behind it invisible—which is extremely dangerous.
These publications, in many ways, are constantly promoting regime-change wars, justifying sanctions, pumping up dissident figures in countries targeted for regime-change, who are sponsored by the U.S. government and trained by U.S. intelligence…
So I consider these outlets [posing as ‘objective’] as more insidious and dangerous than a publication like Fox News where you know their agenda going in…
That's why it's increasingly hard for me to socialize with people who don't attempt to question the prevailing viewpoints in coastal, liberal quarters, where they don't turn to alternative media…” – Max Blumenthal.
Finally, revisiting my earlier point that scientific studies are skewed by the institutional biases of what gets funded, the available, research-based facts to cite, then, are also distorted.
“Once that research isn't happening, then of course there's not going to be authoritative information on it, and that will get censored by Facebook [or other outlets that ‘fact-check’] because it hasn't become part of the canon of acceptable official information.
[The problem of censorship is] more subtle than outright censorship—it's an institutional bias where some things are funded and some aren't." –Charles Eisenstein.
There is no escaping the fact that our perceptions of the world are shaped by the institutional filters through which the mass media machine operates. So we better start to deconstruct and understand how it all works—if we want a chance at addressing the injustices that it currently perpetuates.
In quick summary…
When people see elitist notions of credibility as the determinant of truth and say, “cite your sources and back up your opinion with research,” keep in mind that there's an institutional bias skewing the types of studies that have been done (for there to be anything to cite), and ‘facts’ from established outlets deemed trustworthy should still not be taken at face value.
And the ‘neutral’ tone used to signify credibility? When it's not accompanied by a rigorous inquiry for truth and critical questioning of the primary sources, then that tone may simply be used as a device of deception, turning such reporting into press releases for the powerful. Notably, because it is impossible for a human to be unbiased, being able to tell who the storytellers are, how they feel, and where they stand can actually help us to more accurately interpret the information we receive from them.
Finally, when the media-industrial-complex operates through its elitist filters, it also slants overall media narratives—broadly speaking, privileging and giving more weight to the perspectives of people for whom the system already works.
What does this all mean? Our dominant measures of credibility work against our goals of achieving social justice and sustainability. Without examining how our views of the world have been shaped by a skewed media landscape, we won't be able to fully understand our societal and ecological crises—and address them at their roots.
It's time to question everything.
A few calls-to-action…
In addition to getting information from the most established outlets, also incorporate alternative, independent outlets into your media diet.
Keep your critical thinking cap on no matter where you get your information.
If you can afford to, financially support independent media platforms you value and learn from. Much of alternative media are still free for the public to access, but they generally do rely on direct patronage from their audiences.
Hold back from cheering on social media companies’ abilities to ad-hoc censor information, de-platform users, and decide what is ‘fact’ or ‘fiction’. Even though it occasionally works in our favor, the same power has already and will continue to be weaponized against marginalized peoples and voices of dissent. If there are community safety moderation protocols in place, push for them to provide full transparency and include specific, standardized (not arbitrary) qualifications.
Learn about Net Neutrality and how it may address media consolidation:
“Net Neutrality democratizes media making and ensures that internet service providers can’t block online speech. In the absence of Net Neutrality protections, media consolidation will only accelerate the silencing of voices that are independent, diverse and responsive to community concerns.” (source.)
Can you think of more? Let me know in the comments!
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This is meaty piece, thank you for the depth and insight! I really appreciate you recalling the Irag War and the media's culpable subterfuge. I remember being in elementary school and for the first time feeling skeptical about all the news I was seeing. And I really appreciated your piece on elitist credibility. The frustrating part of a lot of western science/medecine is often if it's not a "APA peer reviewed journal" it's not credible. Which seemingly equates to very few perspectives from marginalized authors. Anywhoo, thanks for sharing!