The truth is not as simple as it seems
So here’s a reality of the explosion of information that we all live with today: it is now more difficult than ever — not easier — to discern the truth.
In the early days of the internet we were all naïve enough to believe that the opposite was true, that having all the world’s knowledge available to us via a simple keystroke would put an end to lying hucksters and hyperbolic propaganda. Alas, it just isn’t so.
In the media industry where I make my livelihood, this presents a particular challenge. If we know someone at a public meeting or in an interview is saying something untrue, how do reporters handle that? And what about letters to the editor or guest columns submitted to our editorial pages? Do we edit those opinions that prop up arguments with illegitimate “studies” or “untrue” facts?
This challenge looms large for me as the editor of our opinion pages. The facts surrounding COVID-19 are a case in point, having become a prickly subject for all of us in the media biz. I can go online right now and find studies that pooh-pooh the wearing of masks. There are plenty of them out there. You can also find an overwhelming number of studies from what I would consider credible organizations saying that mask wearing is very helpful and is one of the best and easiest tools in helping slow the spread of Covid.
It’s our job to pull out all the stops to present truthful information. Our survival — as a business and as a trusted media source — depends on it. Most times if we are reporting on a county commissioner meeting, a mistake is just that: a mistake. However, perceived errors — whether from sources or by those doing the reporting — in almost any story related to politics or a subject that has become politicized becomes “a conspiracy” or proof of “media bias.” Almost as soon as any story is published or put online, readers can start asking why we didn’t get more sources, why we didn’t seek a certain person’s opinion, why we only presented one side, etc.
The anti-vaxx movement is a case in point. It’s one thing to be skeptical of vaccines and their efficacy or to worry that you may be among the minuscule percentage who suffer side-effects. Those are legitimate concerns and those who believe them are knowingly accepting the consequences of their decisions. Unfortunately, there also exists a huge online and media echo chamber surrounding vaccines that feeds on half-truths, outright lies, pseudo-science, conspiracy theories and worse.
And here’s why all this matters: in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, truth matters. Misinformation — to put it bluntly — can be deadly.
I started a discussion with our news staff after a recent letter was submitted which I thought contained the kind of misinformation I’m talking about. Over the years we’ve had some talented people writing for this paper, but I’d say the staff we have right now is as good or better than at any small paper in this country. They take their jobs as journalists seriously, work hard to get things right, and are really smart.
So here’s what one of those reporters suggested about submissions to the opinions section and whether we should edit them: “In general, I think the erosion of trust that occurs when readers know we’re filtering the voices that can appear on our opinion pages is more dangerous than any misrepresentation/distortion of the facts contained in the letters themselves.”
That point is very relevant. We often get accused — especially by those on the right — of bias. Truth is we print every letter we get unless it is libelous or anonymous. We want to get at all sides of every issue and take great pains to do so.
The issue of what is truth and what isn’t seems, on surface, to be an odd topic to be discussing. But it’s not. The internet has liberated us all from having to rely on just a few media sources, but in doing so it has produced such a prodigious amount of information that figuring out how to frame or filter that information becomes a herculean task for all of us. And we all need to realize the truth of that.
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I must respectfully disagree, Scott. Publishing outright and verifiable lies that are potentially harmful to all of us is the equivalent of handing a megaphone to those who want to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre. I also respectfully disagree that it is more difficult to discern truth now than in the past. Logic, reason, and the essential critical thinking skills still serve us just as well as ever. In the past, the volume of information received was indeed much less; but that in itself often served to assist the promulgation of misinformation by limiting sources to a few outlets that have been shown in historical hindsight to have often been vulnerable (or enabled by design) to manipulation by the financial and political powers that be.
Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the “chickens” of a decadent public education system have come home to roost. It’s a fact that many adults today have a high school education and a college degree and have no idea what a fallacy even is. Teaching how to think has been replaced with teaching what to think. My maternal grandmother attended public schools in backwoods rural East Tennessee in the 1920’s-30’s, and went on to be a teacher, herself. Years ago, before she passed away, I found one of her high school report cards that listed a class “Logic, Reason, and Rhetoric”. When I asked her about it, it was just what it sounds like- instruction in the critical thinking skills that are the foundations of Western civilization, science, and philosophy since the ancient Greeks, and absolutely essential in separating the truth as best we can know it from lies. Fifty some odd years later when I was in school, no such course existed in Hawkins Co. schools, and if I hadn’t learned these things on my own in college (where there was also no such required course), I might still be ignorant of them. It is clear that a frightening percentage of Americans are now ignorant of them.
We have become dangerously obsessed and overwhelmed with “opinions”. There is a bizarre notion that we must respect everyone’s opinion. This is insane. An “opinion” that is contrary to the truth is a lie and nobody owes that any respect, much less it being given a public platform from which to spread its poison.
I do not envy your position. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Thank you! The purpose of the editorial page has been to give folks a forum for free speech. I’ve noticed that a few people, some of them regulars, definitely have a different opinion than my own, and certainly seem unbelievably ignorant, but I support their right to have their say. I also noticed that there are several of us who don’t hesitate to give our more sane sounding opinions.
SMN generally gets it right. Some papers have, in the past, fact checked op-eds and even letters. In a saner world where we cared about truth rather than zero sum tribalism the importance of pursuing accurate knowledge would be a basic norm. But we live in interesting times to paraphrase the old proverb. So a local paper that wants to remain viable provides a real service when it prints every letter. It lets us see just how troubled our civic space is. It provides an incentive to get and stay involved as a way of mitigating and moderating harmful epistemic bubbles.
The philosopher Michael Lynch has written some very good and accessible books on how we go about evaluating the validity of knowledge. "In Praise of Reason:Why Rationality Matters for Democracy" is well worth anyone's time if they care about truth.
Jonathon Rauch, centrist journalist, has a very worthwhile new book, "The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth"
I read into your opinion piece here regarding vaccines and your negative predisposition towards so called "anti-vaxxers." Mr. McLeod, why would someone inject an unknown chemical in their bodies that has yet to be approved by the FDA? Do they list the ingredients anywhere? Is there any culpability for any bad side affects or worse? As your President says, "come on, man."