Like many young writers, I dabbled in journalism during high school and college as a way to expand my skill set and develop my voice. In one of my practical courses, my teacher gave us an interesting assignment to learn the depth of research that goes into an article; he wanted us to prove that he is a real person.
Sounds ridiculous right? The man is standing in front of us, dictating the parameters of the project, he’s obviously not a group hallucination since he has mentored years of students before us. What started as a laughing matter quickly taught us the importance of primary sources, supporting testimonies, and critically reviewing information.
The best article that term was written by a peer of mine that managed to hunt down the teacher’s mother’s phone number and contacted her for some firsthand knowledge of his existence. I, on the other hand, had an email from his former colleague with a questionable account of alleged dubious endeavors in Tijuana.
I carried that experience through my university and professional careers. It seems silly to use such an assignment as the foundation for ethical reading and writing but consider that we are now in a post-truth era where seemingly indisputable facts like the shape of the Earth are back up for debate. We no longer know who to trust since our political opinion now determines which media outlets we consider fake news. There’s an explosion of bots, false identities, and trolls on social media clouding the discussion with blatant misinformation. Finally, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year found that a large percentage of Americans can’t tell the difference between facts and opinions.
The reality is that we need to take a step back from consuming information and start critically reviewing the “facts” that are presented to us. Taking a few lessons from traditional journalism can be effective at easing some of the confusion. For instance:
Read/Watch/Listen to the Primary Source
One of the talking points from the White House regarding President Trump’s Impeachment is to “read the transcript.” However, from holiday dinner tables to segments on The Daily Show, we are finding that not a lot of voters have actually read the full transcript. Worse yet, there is the discussion that the “transcript” is actually a summary of the call rather than a word-for-word recap.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the best approach in all such situations is to find the original (or closest to) source that is available and develop your own opinion accordingly. Then seek out secondary perspectives from both sides of the argument to evolve your stance. Don’t let a talking head tell you the facts; seek them out on your own. That being said…
There Are Not Always Two Sides to a Story
HBO’s The Newsroom had its fair share of fictionalized drama, but there were also some bits of golden advice sprinkled throughout as well. In one of the earlier episodes, the team discusses the issue of bias and comes to the conclusion that they will not present both sides of a story if one is clearly wrong regardless of if it makes them appear to show favoritism.
Sometimes there isn’t a case for “playing devil’s advocate.” Sometimes there are just facts and opinions. For example, climate change is happening, minority women are paid less than men and white females, and the Earth is round. Yet there are academic studies and news articles that will try to convince you that these facts are debatable. In the age of misinformation, do not give credence to the inaccurate just to appear unbiased. But keep in mind…
A Good Debate is Based on Respect
The exact wording of the First Amendment goes “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Therefore, most Americans are aware that journalists cannot be censored (except in specific cases) by the United States government. Instead, they self-impose a set of ethical standards including the directive to “Minimize Harm.” The statement from the Society of Professional Journalists reads “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”
As partisanship continues to divide this country into two distinct camps, we seem to forget that our family, friends, and peers are human beings. We no longer debate the facts and instead devolve into name-calling, stereotypes, and in some cases threats. Look no further than the comments section of an NPR or Fox News article to witness all three in action. We need to move beyond low-level bickering and become a nation of critical thinkers if we are going to overcome the post-truth era.
It’s hard to say when we started demonizing the news media and its professional journalists. Likely it was sometime between the rise of the Internet and the fracturing of the U.S. political system to an unprecedented level. An overwhelming amount of information combined with a stalemated government is a breeding ground for fake news.
It’s time for us as media consumers to start thinking more like traditional news journalists when dividing our facts from opinions. Find primary sources, recognize false bias, and respect your political opponent. The alternative is blind allegiance in the name of political support; you may think you’re making an argument, but you’re only a mouthpiece for someone else’s thoughts.