[download a PDF of the following here]

“If you seek truth, you will not seek by every means to gain a victory; and if you have found truth, you will have the gain of not being defeated.” – Epictetus, Fragments

 

Is Denzel Washington right?

 

“One of the effects of ‘too much information'” is “the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So what a responsibility you all [the media] have — to tell the truth…”

I’m hearing a lot about [this] “fake news” lately. What does this term refer to?

As the Washington Post reports: “Fake news can now… refer to the phenomenon of a news source publishing something that is inaccurate but is still believed and shared by readers.”

In other words, even news that is selectively reported (our biases and “blind spots” are always a part of us! – even as we might strive to be more fair in seeing things as they are, holding our own attitudes in check) or unintentionally misleading (like things the Post itself sometimes has published – see here and here for example), has now come to be lumped together with “deliberately fabricated stories, often with the purpose of making money for the creators.”

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

Why is this happening now?

Allow a brief, incomplete answer. In general, it is good to have a healthy skepticism, but today, people are doing what schools have been emphasizing in recent years: “question[] information sources and rais[e] doubts about the incentives of those who are pushing a single message” (Boyd, 2016). Sometimes that is undoubtedly good, but sometimes that is undoubtedly bad.

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

How can I, in this day and age, get reliable news and information?

You cannot turn over every rock yourself or even know where all the rocks are. You don’t even really want to spend time trying to do that either if you can avoid it! Further, you also cannot be an expert on every topic, knowing the various facets of that topic and the multiple perspectives surrounding it.

We need to deal with this fact: a part of life is trusting others when it comes to things like this. You can’t avoid doing this.

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

What do sources that provide reliable news and information look like?

The simple answer is that this is not rocket science, even if it is getting harder to do. You can do your best to be reliably informed through…

-Institutions, publications, and particular persons that, in spite of their biases and their incentives (a for-profit site, for example, may have a greater incentive to not only produce “clickbait,” but lie or spin), prove to be generally accurate and reliable in what they report, and who also see value in listening to – and accurately presenting the thoughts of! – those of alternative viewpoints.

In addition, realize that you, like anyone else, want to believe that some things are true and others false (perhaps the more you want something to be true, the more you should question it!).

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

Additional questions for reflection: What about when persons do not show “good will” towards you? Should their viewpoints be valued or even listened to? What about persons who hold views who most all persons think are “beyond the pale”? What about those prone to make weighty accusations against others on the basis of what seems to be very little or questionable evidence?

What are some other qualities these institutions, publications, and persons will have?

They will, in part:

-Fact-check their sources and themselves (“umbudsmen” are good!), and be upfront about the practices and methods that they use to gain knowledge.

-Admit when they are wrong about facts and issue actual corrections (preferably prominently placed ones) or retractions. Especially if the initial stories were “front page” material that received a lot of attention.

-Realize that issues of truth, and hence ethics, are inextricably connected with issues of authority (cultural and political power are therefore connected with, but not the same thing as, authority).

Yes, you might justifiably wonder whether – especially “in today’s lightening-paced world of journalism” (see here) – there are many organizations who, as a whole, do this (see here and follow the links). In which case, you may have to start caring more about certain talented and trustworthy individual persons in those organizations. Finally, in addition, the absolute very best of these reliable sources will also be….

-More transparent than not about their deeper underlying biases and worldviews (i.e. the “controlling narratives” that influence their ethics and that they think are important in helping to interpret the world as a whole) – and some will even give their well-thought out reasons and evidence supporting their views of the world.[i]

This means that some of the sources that deliver the best news may be, in their worldview/philosophy, quite ideological (perhaps they will even be derided as being extreme by some) – but they will also have deep convictions about, for example, the dignity of each person and, hence, the goal of discussing – and debating – fairly (in truth, some are civil and want to listen to others because they believe they should, in general, do this, while others may just do so out of social pressure or perhaps even to avoid public embarrassment over producing poor arguments [based on bad information!] vs. their enemies that can be clearly be shown to misrepresent them).

In one sense, we are all ideologues (for example, even those who are dogmatic about being undogmatic feel and/or think that there are some forms or ways of being and doing that are better than others!). But the key question is what kind of ideologue we are… both in our convictions about how we are to treat others and how open we are to considering empirical evidence that might challenge, even radically challenge, our viewpoints and narratives.

Recognize that much of what passes for news today was, in the past, clearly seen as opinion and/or entertainment (are either Rush Limbaugh or John Stewart, for that matter, really “news”?).

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

How can I find these groups and persons?

Sometimes it is hard work to do this. Even sources that have had good reputations can slip. For example, Leetaru (2016) points out the growing problem of even peer-reviewed academic journals citing sources inaccurately.[ii] To go along with this, in general, confidence and emotional rhetoric is in vogue (these “sell”!), and not so much facts and reason.

Another thing that makes this whole issue particularly difficult is that we do not only need to trust persons we think are reliable (and this, in general, will be someone we think is smart and cares about me and people I care about). We also need to be generally educated about the issues that reporters tend to cover so we can begin to understand what they are saying (if we don’t have the background information or vocabulary we need, it will be harder to understand others).

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

What are some specific tools and skills that can learn to help me deal with fact-checking a particular event or claim?

Again, background knowledge about the topic being explored is always indispensable. As Caulfield (2016) notes, students are often critical thinkers, but sometimes, “they just don’t have any tools or facts to think critically with.” This includes having knowledge about the media “ecosystem” as it exists  – and knowing about the particular cues likely to be found to let you know what a site’s (or “think tank”’s, for example) orientation is. Again however – there is always an element of trust involved (e.g. is this photograph of the event that was posted even real?), and sometimes, of course, a greater degree of trust is involved.

All of this said, there are also some tools to know about and skills to develop.

  1. A fact-checking sites like Snopes has, historically, been generally respected because they have a reputation, across the spectrum, for real fairness and reliability (but things like this piece from Molly Ziegler Hemingway, a conservative reporter I trust, make me less inclined to trust Snopes[iii]). There is certainly a need for people of good will to create sites that take a responsible approach to fact-checking.
  1. Some polling organizations continue to be highly regarded and respected. Gallup is one such organization (Pew is another), as it is very transparent in its methodology. (interestingly, they recently reported that “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history.”)
  1. You can do a reverse image search in Google, for example, to track down the original sources of images on the internet (see here for a “how-to” example). Tin Eye will also do image searches. Google Translate can help you to get a rough translation of foreign news sources. Regular Google can help you check cross-reference quotes (just put quote marks around the phrase!)
  1. Boyd (2016), says “We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines.” Do you think that looking at a variety of news site’s coverage of a topic, as this site called “All Sides” encourages one to do, is likely to bring persons closer together or further apart? What creates calmness and a desire for civility in persons? Can stronger personal relationships with persons who deeply disagree with you help?

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

What are some good places to find information so that I can, through some work, become knowledgeable on most any topic?

(and yes, perhaps your work does not feel like work because you are driven by a love for the topic, which is a good thing! – even as, elsewhere, more [not complete!] “objectivity” is a worthy thing to strive for!)

  1. First, a brief response to the idea that “Google doesn’t judge me.” Answer: This is true. And that might be problematic, correct?
  1. It is not always problematic! Sometimes things like Google and things like You Tube, for instance, can be quite helpful: when one needs a recipe, wants to learn how to do a dance, needs to do a some kinds of car repairs or home improvement projects, etc.
  1. When it comes to more involved topics (sciences, literature, history, philosophy, religious viewpoints, etc.) you want to learn about but know very little about, start with encyclopedia articles and do not end there. Look at the references (“Works cited”/bibliography) cited at the end of the article in order to dig deeper. Even something like Wikipedia, despite persons’ justifiable concerns about the source, can be very helpful here.
  1. If you have access to a good, well-stocked library, cross-referencing the works cited from a variety of reference books (including things like discipline or topic-specific encyclopedias) to find commonly cited books and texts is a good practice. These are books that are seen as especially seminal, influential, respected, authoritative, etc.
  1. Finally, find a teacher who appreciates these authors, and who you find can “break down” the works of these authors (including their own reflections on their ideas) into manageable and easy-to-understand chunks. Sometimes such teachers are even willing to give their content away for free on iTunes, You Tube, etc. See these lectures, for example.

Agree or disagree? Discuss.

Finally, a tough question about what our ultimate bearings are when it comes to news….

Look at the following chart, produced in Nov. of 2016 (see here), which attempts to produce a guide for news consumption:

news-quality-v4 Assuming that there is something to this chart as it relates to the relative “liberalness” or “conservativeness” regarding certain news organizations compared to other news organizations, the deeper “worldview” question is this:

What kind of “measure” or “rule” do you think is being used here to determine what is “the center”? (note how the center shifts more to the right on this site) How would you describe it?

FIN

 

Note: a few minor spelling corrections – as well as the You Tube video above and accompanying quotes from it – have been added to the original blog post.

Thoughtful web articles I’ve read that I think provoke deeper reflection:

https://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/the-other-side-is-not-dumb-2670c1294063#.ejdvrq2ua

https://points.datasociety.net/did-media-literacy-backfire-7418c084d88d#.ja0mnn8le

https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/12/07/post-truth-propaganda-and-bullshit-a-glossary/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/12/07/how-the-war-against-fake-news-backfired/?utm_term=.57cae496f8bb

http://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2016/12/11/how-data-and-information-literacy-could-end-fake-news/#2b15c8b53335

http://reason.com/blog/2017/01/09/lets-be-clear-about-who-drained-the-mean

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/08/blaming-fake-news-not-the-answer-democracy-crisis

https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/information-literacy-bayes-and-a-research-agenda/ (rather technical)

Thoughtful podcasts I’ve listened to that I think provoke deeper reflection:

http://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/12/14/the-lasting-impact-of-fake-news

http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2016/12/07/origins-implications-fake-news

http://www.kcrw.com/news-culture/shows/to-the-point/the-year-in-fake-news

http://thefederalist.com/2016/12/09/everyone-talking-fake-news-matter/

http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/12/09/briefing-12-09-16/

http://issuesetc.org/tag/fake-news/

Notes:

[i] Examples that are prominent in my mind are the British film documentarian Adam Curtis on the cultural left and the libertarian-leaning and LC-MS Lutheran political reporter Molly Ziegler Hemingway. I highly respect both of these individuals.

[ii] Leetaru also notes that one of the world’s top scientific journals is now allowing “citations to non-peer-reviewed personal web pages and blog posts as primary citations supporting key arguments in papers published in that journal.” My first reaction to this is simply: “Whose blog posts? What kind of ‘key arguments?’”

[iii] Let me be clear. The fact that the Snopes article changed the day after the Molly Ziegler Hemingway article is a good sign. That said, that Snopes would have written what they did in the first place does not engender trust. Nor does the fact that there is no explanation on their page regarding a retraction or why the page was updated, etc.