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.