Reporting just the facts is getting harder
“Alternative facts” was a phrase used by U.S. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, during a “Meet the Press” interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. When pressed during the interview with Chuck Todd to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood,” Conway stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts.” Todd responded, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” - Wikipedia
Should be easy, but it really isn’t: figuring out how to report on misinformation and outright falsehoods.
Over the last few years it’s become increasingly common at local public meetings of elected bodies for citizens to sign up to make public comments and then, once their turn comes, what comes out of their mouths are more opinion than fact. Sometimes the statements are downright ludicrous.
Perhaps occurrences of this have been exacerbated by the lockdowns and closings and mandates associated with Covid, which made many very angry and became very politicized. There’s little elected officials and government employees can do when a citizen takes his or her turn at the lectern except listen, especially when the elected body did not come prepared to discuss the specifics of the particular issue the speaker has raised. Debating without the factual information at hand can quickly descend to just plain hotheaded mudslinging, which is sometimes what it seems some of these speakers want.
So how are reporters writing about these meetings supposed to cover situations such as this? Simply regurgitate misinformation, even if the statements are easily dismissed with even a cursory bit of reporting and fact finding?
It is a strange era in which we live, isn’t it? Facts often seem tailored to one’s ideology rather than to what the actual data shows. Disinformation and misinformation often repeated — as in millions of times on the internet — become a mantra many have a hard time not believing.
I’m of the opinion that a small media source like ours should act as the public square, a place where all views are welcome, all debates civil and all participants treated with respect no matter their opinion. But we also don’t want to spread misinformation. Someone gets up at a public meeting and makes a false statement — often hurled at elected officials like an accusation — about crime or COVID or the 2020 election, I think the media has an obligation in most instances to state the facts.
Our reporter Cory Vaillancourt had this happen at a reason Haywood County Board of Commissioners meeting. Cory fact-checked several statements made by speakers at the meeting, and many of them did not hold up. And so we reported that in the story.
All of us who follow small-town politics have witnessed the fairly rapid rise of this phenomenon. Speakers are bringing views on national topics or their own interpretation of local events to our local governments and making statements they claim as fact. This rise of “alternative facts” leaves media organizations large and small in a quandary. I don’t want to be in the business of telling a neighbor or a friend that what they just said at a public meeting has no basis in reality. On the other hand, we’d be negligent in our mission to accurately report the news if we didn’t fact check the sources we quote. We could ignore those who make false claims, but then we aren’t reporting factually on the tenor and tone of that particular governmental meeting.
Look, there have always been those who want to contribute to the public debate on issues important to them. It just seems like lately there are a lot more of those folks showing up and making statements on the record. More power to them, as an engaged citizenry is a good thing. So, we’ll continue to do our best to fact check and report the news as straight-up as we are able.
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The major problem for the news media is rather simple. They have reported lies as facts so many times they are no longer trusted. It's best to defend yourself by doing what is right and reporting the facts with as little of your own opinion involved as possible. The editorial page is a different place entirely, but a lot of what I've seen published there is simpleminded sewage.
Oh my, dear Lucille Josephs. Please get some rest.
Oh my, dear Lucille Josephs. Please get some rest.
Lucille Josephs, you obviously hate the SMN. I have read your sullen comments many a time throughput the years. Why don’t you just stop reading the SMN if you loathe it so much?
What do you guys use for fact checking? Google? LOL
It's just reassuring that you acknowledge this huge problem.
And it's nice to know that there is a news agency, big or small, that is trying it's best to sift through opinions, conspiracies, and dogma, to find what is true through data, science, and education. Facts from falsehoods.