Carl Bernstein: Getting Ready for 2016

carl-crop-2The 2016 presidential election is anticipated to be the most expensive in history – costing five billion dollars – twice the amount spent during the 2012 campaigns.

This massive figure is indicative of the surge in media coverage the public will consume in the months leading to the next election. This surge may also leave them with the task of deciphering between what is fact and what is fiction.

This was the topic on Monday, April 6, 2015, as the Stony Brook University Center for News Literacy hosted a lecture that welcomed guest Carl Bernstein, the Presidential Visiting Professor at Stony Brook, acclaimed author and Pulitzer Prize winner for his tenacious reporting on one of the largest presidential scandals in history. He is a prominent voice in the American political discussion, and his books have included a biography of the likely Democratic candidate, former United States Secretary of State and U.S. Senator, Hillary Clinton.

In preparation for an historic campaign season and the equally historic bombardment of news content that could follow, Bernstein offered his advice to an audience of both students and visitors on how to siphon reliable information out of the excess.

He used his book as an example of the critical step a news consumer should take when reading about presidential candidates in the media – be concerned with context. Context, Bernstein emphasized, is a sure way to find the “best obtainable version of the truth” in journalism.

He explained that delving deeper into a political figure’s background may provide a more accurate representation of who they are as an individual and in turn, a more accurate representation of their political agenda.

“The more you know about a person’s whole life, the more context you have to judge,” Bernstein said.

Seeking a more diverse range of information, in addition to staying abreast of reputable publications – Bernstein cited the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post as some of the best – are ways to defend against succumbing to cognitive bias, or searching for information only to affirm our own ideologies.

“I think what we are doing increasingly is looking for information that makes it impossible to have a fact based debate,” Bernstein said, an issue that precedes the problem of effectively sifting through massive amounts of questionable news. “Journalism tends to be reflective of the larger culture.”

The lecture was co-hosted by the Director of the Center for News Literacy, Dean Miller, and Ahmad Malik, who is a double major in political science and astronomy as well as a triple minor, which includes journalism. He is also a student in Bernstein’s class at Stony Brook, “The Press and the Presidency.”

Malik commented on the steps he takes in order to both check his cognitive bias and determine the fact from fiction in his news consumption: “The number one thing I do every morning when I read the newspaper – I question, ‘Is this truly a fact? Is this truly opinion? And what can I do with this information?’”

 Reporting and photographs by Megan Miller