Editorial: Think critically to counteract contaminating effects of 'fake news'

 
Updated 12/29/2016 10:56 AM
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  • Daily Herald Illustration

    Daily Herald Illustration

Fake news will be around as long as there are people gullible enough to slurp it up -- and share it.

As members of a democracy and consumers of news, we all have a responsibility to be discerning about the "news" we consume.

The notion of fake news has become part of our national vernacular in the past year, but disinformation and the passing along of information that is purposely misleading or patently untrue is of course nothing new.

It has been around as long as communication itself and it was an integral feature of political intrigue centuries before the "dirty tricks" of the Watergate era got our attention.

But in the era of social media, the phenomenon has gained new power, with a ready appeal to gullible audiences eager to accept and quickly pass along headlines, clickbait and outright fabrications that seem to qualify their political or social outrage.

The democratization of the news media via the internet has brought forth many new voices, but it also has opened the door to all manner of shading, distorting and even contradicting the truth.

The New York Times recently published a story about a couple of guys who freely discussed simply making things up on their website and calling it news -- all in the quest for clicks. A great story, nauseating to read.

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center story, 67 percent of adults in the United States use Facebook. And 44 percent of adults in the wUnited States get news from Facebook.

So people rely less on getting news directly from a trusted source, such as a newspaper or TV or radio station, in favor of "news" aggregated from less trustworthy sources and passed around by friends who share their points of view.

Responsible professional journalists are taught to investigate, to corroborate, to substantiate, to be fair, to provide balance. We'd rather not publish a story at all than write one we're unsure of. Fake news is anathema to us. Our loftiest goal is to get it right.

Many of us grew up with or in the shadow of the City News Bureau in Chicago, whose motto was: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."

It's a valuable maxim, but it can be easily ignored when someone or some organization's standard for fairness and balance is "anything that appears to fit my preconceived beliefs and opinions."

There are ways to fight back. You probably already know about Snopes.com, the urban myth-debunking site launched in 1995. Seven years ago, the News Literacy Project (thenewsliteracyproject.org) started teaching kids in school how to use critical thinking to determine whether the news they get through social media is truth or fiction.

Facebook itself is working to weed out fake news by experimenting with making it easier for people to report it and by creating partnerships with outside fact-checkers.

Fake news doesn't become truth just because we want it to be so. Nor should news or analysis critical of ideas we support be labeled as "fake" simply because we don't like it. But the phenomenon has done much to weaken and contaminate our national dialogue.

Let's each of us commit to a standard that accepts challenges to our own thinking and seeks out independent confirmation of shocking or disturbing claims that may support out own points of view.

This is the place where fake news can fester. This is where we have to let it die.

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