by Kate Messner
I came home and enrolled in my local Community College after my first quarter of Sophomore year at a small university. I volunteered to write for their fledgling newspaper. It’s called Tri-C Times, now, but back then it was less than glossy and not as comprehensive. Even though I was an English major, I had never taken a journalism course and decided it would be a good idea. One of our first assignments was to interview someone we found interesting. It could be a family member, friend, or someone we did not know. The written article did not need to be lengthy, but it was supposed to be thorough.
I made mine up. It was pure fiction, not even based on someone real and my teacher did not appreciate my creativity.
I did not do well in that class, but was assigned weekly editorials for the young paper, opinion pieces, as everyone knows, but based on verifiable and reliable sources. Even that long ago, I wrote about garbage and the importance of recycling (which was a pretty new idea).
Although I enjoy many different styles of writing including non-fiction, I’ve never been drawn to journalism. It has to do with the way the information is gathered, not in reporting it. I sensed interviews and steered clear.
Journalism, like any good piece of non-fiction, reports facts. It is “the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media. It is reporting characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” merriam-webster.com
Journalism depends on a free press, “a body of book publishers, news media, etc., not controlled or restricted by government censorship in political or ideological matters.” dictionary.com Since newspapers and news magazines, TV and radio stations are not owned by the government, their journalists are not restricted in their reporting.
An informed listener or reader can usually identify the direction a particular outlet leans. Although the best reporters strive for balanced articles by sharing true statements with their audience, many others skew across the spectrum from raging right to unlimited left. Here's a chart prepared by Ad Fontes Media, a news literacy company. Charts like these are becoming more and more popular. It’s helpful to see “your” source’s reliability score and see where it lands on the left to right bias spectrum.
I like to believe that we all want to know that the news we hear and read is true. But undisclosed bias is real and unless a journalist’s sources are listed or referred to or identified, it’s difficult to tell if what we’re reading is true. That’s where Media Bias Charts are helpful.
You can find a list of fake news websites on Wikipedia (not my favorite source, but it’s much better that it was at its beginning).
And there’s confirmation bias. We tend to process those articles that match what we already think is true. We are more likely to remember (and repeat) information that is consistent with our beliefs and forget or ignore information that is not.
Confirmation bias is dangerous when people discredit the science showing the efficacy of vaccines, or try to disprove that we are in a climate catastrophe, or claim our elections are unfair and full of fraud.
It is a difficult task to purposely seek an argument that disproves our own biases. It feels like holding two opposite ideas in your mind at the same time. A good place to start is to ask why you believe a certain “fact” is true. An honest answer is hard to find, but probably very reliable.
That’s why fake news is so long-lasting.
The purposeful use of lies, half-truths, and rumors to influence public opinion, or promote a particular political cause is propaganda.
Propaganda is a form of disinformation. Lies are spread to gain political power. Hate speech drives fear. Rumors foment anger. Propaganda causes harm on purpose. The person spreading propaganda knows it is false and wants to deceive their audience usually to gain power or status, or both.
Misinformation is told by someone who’s spreading a mistake. The intent of the person telling the story is to inform their audience. The information is incorrect, even though the person telling it really believes it is true. Examples abound. Earth is flat. The climate is not changing. President Biden lost the 2020 election. Misinformation can and often does cause harm, but that is not its purpose.
Confirmation bias is one way misinformation and disinformation make stories so sticky, so long-lasting, even in the face of reliable evidence like science and eye-witnesses.
In today’s Russia, calling Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine a war or an invasion can land the teller a fifteen year jail sentence.
A free press is the backbone to a working democracy.
-—stay curious! (and check your sources)