Responding to the Journalism Crisis


Yesterday I was involved in an “animated” discussion about immigration triggered by “the caravan” that is making its way to the US border. I have read the “suggestion” by people on social media that we should carpet bomb the caravan, that the caravan is being funded by George Soros and is full of criminals and terrorists. I’ve also read sources debunking some of the extreme claims made about the caravan.

The reporting is all over the board. That is problem, not just in regard to this “caravan” issue, but in general. Because journalism has all but thrown off the façade of being unbiased, people don’t trust journalism anymore. We are experiencing a journalism crisis in the United States today.

As the “conversation” played out on my social media page, one person demanded a source for the claims that the caravan was trumped up and funded by people like George Soros and infiltrated by criminals and people who have been deported many times before. When another person posted a Western Journal article (with the headline, Reporter Proves Trump 100% Right), the first person responded this way:

“I guess I should ha [sic] said credible evidence. A statement from an independent reporter for a right wing paper trying to spread irrational fear does not work for me.”

With a headline like that, who wouldn’t be suspicious of its content? (Unless you want to believe that Trump is 100% right.) The headline is classic clickbait. It’s designed to attract the people who want to believe every word, and it is meant to get a reaction from the people who don’t want to believe a single word.

Is this what journalism has come to?

But, I also had to cringe at the response. While I understand it, the response reveals a deeply flawed, knee-jerk reaction mentality that is just as unproductive as the clickbait headline (which is intended to provoke the reaction). We have gotten so that we dismiss anything out of hand that comes from “the other side”.

It happens both ways. People will say the same thing about CNN or MSNBC or other sources. For that reason (and others), it’s a no-win argument. It might make sense to distrust a source that is clearly biased, but bias doesn’t mean that the reporting is inaccurate.

Stripping away the opinions, the factual statements are either true or untrue – but the truth doesn’t depend on the bias of the source.

Putting it another way, it’s wrong to dismiss the statements of fact in an article out of hand just because we distrust the source. The accuracy or inaccuracy of the factual statements have nothing to do with the source. So, how do we respond?

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False News Travels Faster than True News

Depositphotos Image ID: 176371828 Copyright: chris77ho

A recent MIT study that analyzed over 100,000 news stories and millions of tweets concluded, convincingly, that falsehoods travels faster than truth. (See Study: On Twitter, false news travels faster than true stories) Let that sink in….

“’We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,’ says Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of a new paper detailing the findings.”

The next time you are tempted to retweet, re-post or share a news story that triggers your ire, maybe you should stop and think about it first. Better yet, maybe you should do a little objective investigation first. In fact, as it turns out, there is characteristic emotional state that seems to accompany the sharing of false news.

“’We saw a different emotional profile for false news and true news,’ Vosoughi says. ‘People respond to false news more with surprise and disgust,’” he notes, whereas true stories produced replies more generally characterized by sadness, anticipation, and trust.”

The more shocking the story, the more fantastic it seems, the more likely it is that the story is false. Red flags should go up whenever something seems a little too great or little too despicable to be true. That doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t some true news stories that seem fantastic or disgusting. It’s just that anything that seems a little too fantastic or a little terrible to be true should be investigated more completely.

This is particularly true when the stories run along political lines and hit those partisan buttons that people seem to have set to ultra-sensitive these days. We are particularly susceptible to being duped when the stories trip our switches! The extent to which we are triggered shocked the researchers.

“[R]esearchers were ‘somewhere between surprised and stunned’ at the different trajectories of true and false news on Twitter.”

In fact, the researchers found that false news stories were seventy percent (70%) more likely to be retweeted than true stories! True stories took about six (6) times longer to “catch up” to the false news stories according to their study that was recently published.

That suggests that we should be automatically suspicious of any news story we are hearing for the first time, and doubly so if the story is unusually fantastic or disgusting.

Maybe one of the reasons that people run with false news stories today has to do with the way we consume news and entertainment (and news is entertainment the way it is produced and “consumed” these days!). News is big business, and it is designed to generate an impact and a response. “The news sells”, and bad news, fantastic news, disgusting news sells better than good news and ordinary news. We are programmed to respond to it because it is designed for a response.

News and entertainment has also conditioned us to short attention spans. From 30-minute sitcoms to to 30-second commercials to 140 words in a Twitter post (now up to 240 words!), we have gotten used to soundbites of information. I have always thought our soundbite, short-attention-span world began with MTV videos in which dozens of moving video segments kept the focus off any particular video component, but that is just a personal theory.

In the fast-world we live in, we don’t have time to digest anything for very long, and we seem to feel compelled to jump to our conclusions while the events, ideas, news or statements have even concluded and the dust settles on what we are considering. Perspective requires a certain amount of time to mature, but we have become too impatient to respond with more than a reaction.

Maybe a little self-realization will help. Maybe taking a step back will help us gain some perspective. The next time you come across something fantastic or disgusting, whether it aligns with your politics and ideology or strains it, take a deep breath… pause… and let it simmer while you take some time to dig into it. See if you can find some corroboration from an unlikely source – one that doesn’t align perfectly with your leanings.

If you don’t have time to investigate, then just let it simmer. The world isn’t going to spin off its axis if you don’t chime in right away.

One last thing about the study is that the researchers had a hard time agreeing on a definition of “fake news”. This is telling to me. Many things that people call “fake news” is really just a contrary opinion or conclusion. Opinions and conclusory statements are often confused for factual statements.

The researchers settled on using “false news” for the purposes of their study. False news consists of fact statements (assertions of fact, or supposed fact) not opinions or conclusions about fact the facts. Many things that people call “fake news” are simply someone’s opinion or conclusion about the facts.

Our propensity to rush to an opinion or conclusion about things is similar to our propensity to share false news. (In my opinion – this is an unsupported conclusion based only my personal observation and not backed by any objective study.) My support is only anecdotal, but it’s something to which I am sensitive as an attorney.

More times than I could count I have had clients insist to me that they have been wronged and relay to me a one-sided tale of personal wrongs that seems black and white – until I begin to hear the other side of the story. And then I often don’t know who to believe (he said/she said). We naturally see things through the filters of what we expect, what is best for us, what we like or dislike and other very personal motivators that color our worlds.

This is true (in my opinion) when it comes to news. Within minutes and hours of the Treyvon Martin shooting, and the Ferguson shooting, and – you name it – social media is flooded with armchair news anchors, investigative reporters, detectives and pundits who think they know exactly how it went down and are rushing to get their op-eds out to the world. The truth is that the real facts usually take months to sort out and sift through, and we often are left with more troubling ambiguities and inconsistencies than we would care to admit or accept.

All the more reason to be slow to jump to conclusions, to be thoughtful and considerate, to be circumspect about what we see and hear and to allow time for more thorough consideration. We should be willing to entertain new information and different perspectives. We should be careful about the facts we assume, especially if we are not in a good, ourselves, to judge them.

The MIT study gives us good reason to take a step back and to reconsider how we digest the news we receive and the things that we share.

We Are Easy Targets of the Information War

Depositphotos Image ID: 88914724 Copyright: 3dmentat

The news is out that Russians have been indicted on charges of interfering in the last presidential election, much to the chagrin of Republicans and Trump supporters. The indictment is certain to curl the lips of Democrats, and Hillary Clinton supporters in particular, in grins of righteous vindication. But we need to resist these gut level reactions and take thoughtful stock of what is going on in our country.

We are polarized as never before. What the Russians did was simply to use our own momentum against us in a classic judo type of social engineering that proved so effective it should be frightening. And it should prompt us to take off our combative gloves and come together as Americans to reclaim the civility of Democracy that is our saving grace in a country that is often torn and divided by the issues that threaten to push and pull us apart.

This is the indictment:

“A grand jury in the District of Columbia today returned an indictment presented by the Special Counsel’s office. The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system, including the 2016 presidential election. The defendants allegedly conducted what they called “information warfare” against the United States with the stated goal of spreading mistrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” *

Unfortunately, we are fat and easy targets.

We need to pay close attention here, but we have to put down our weapons against each other to absorb the full impact of what the Russians were able to do. They used us and against ourselves, and it was easy work – too easy!

The Russians set up Internet based operations making them appear to be owned and operated by people within the United States. They used fictitious and stolen identities, fraudulent bank and accounts and false documents. They posed as “politically and socially active Americans” communicating with “unwitting Americans” through Social Media action groups. They advertised on social media networks, and they engaged and paid “real Americans” to carry on political campaigns, promote political candidates and agenda and stage political rallies.

For instance, “’Black Fist’ … was confirmed to be part of the Internet Research Agency’s operation — the self defense classes were an apparent attempt to stoke fear and gather contact details of Americans potentially susceptible to propaganda.”**

According to the report, these Americans didn’t know they were communicating with and being manipulated by Russians. These Americans were so easy to manipulate because they are losing the ability to vet their own political inclinations; they are losing the ability to be self-reflective; they are losing the ability to be civil and respectful of each other. These Americans are quick to judge, quick to jump to conclusions, quick to affirm their own narratives and quick to criticize others.

These Americans are us.

The Russians pitted us against ourselves. But for what end?

“[They] engaged in activities and rallies to support the president-elect while simultaneously staging rallies to protest his election.” Sometimes they supported contrary rallies in the same cities on the same days. For those Republicans licking their wounds, this might be some solace; and for Democrats who might be tempted to smirk, this should give you pause.

The indictment indicates that the Russians “intended to incite discord in the United States and undermine confidence in Democracy”. The Russians simply fueled the fires that are already burning, and they did to sow discord and contention, and it didn’t take much effort for them to succeed.

In fact, I’m not sure they needed to do anything at all because we are already doing it to ourselves. They just gave us a nudge in the direction we have already been going. For instance, “‘Heart of Texas,’ a page that posed as a pro-Texas secession organization, promoted a ‘Stop Islamization of Texas’ protest at the opening of a library at an Islamic Center on May 21, 2016. The same troll group used another page, ‘United Muslims of America,’ to promote a ‘Save Islamic Knowledge’ event at the same time.” According to the same report, “After the election the group used its pages to promote events celebrating the election of Donald Trump and events protesting Trump’s election.”

While the liberal groups are screaming that the Russians meddled in the election to get Trump elected, the conservative groups are screeching about Hillary Clinton’s deals with Russians in the past – and the Russians are just smiling.

I actually wrote on this very subject last June, long before the recent indictments:

“Are we Americans that gullible? Or are we simply unwilling to suspend our penchant to believe everything that affirms our political views? Maybe its a matter of not being able to stop the momentum of our own biases as they carry us down the streams of our own predispositions…

“We are so hell bent on affirming our own biases about anything political that fake news has become a booming business!….”

“With virtually nothing growing in the no-man’s land in between, and little communication across the expanse, each side is primed for the propaganda it wants to hear. A little fake news here, a little drama there, and the war on both sides might be fueled for several generations to come, even while we seem know and admit that we are being manipulated.

“We just can’t stop ourselves.”***

Or can we?

Hopefully, we can stop this madness, but both sides will need to put their ideological weapons down long enough to talk peace. We need to replace party line politics with some real thought, analysis and self-reflection. We need be honest about our own ideological shortcomings and stop to consider that our political enemies are really our neighbors, our friends and even our own family members – they ultimately want what “we” want, which is a better America, a better world and a better future our children and grandchildren.

We all want the same thing!

Just because we disagree on how we achieve our mutual goals doesn’t mean that have to sharpen the pitchforks. We need to relearn civility and respect and the art of the compromise. If we can’t do this, we will continue to be the targets of future information wars that will wreak havoc on our socio-political psyches, undermine any remaining confidence in our political systems and threaten our Democracy.

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*For the press release by Rod Rosenstein:



**From http://money.cnn.com/2018/02/16/media/internet-research-agency-mueller-indictment/index.html

***See Political Gullibility? Or Unwillingness to Suspend Belief?

Where I stand on Kneeling

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

I have tried to pay as little attention to pre-football game ceremonies as I possibly can lately. The public outcry and comment about it makes my avoidance a challenge. I haven’t formally weighed in on the crisis. I don’t like rushing to judgment. I like to let things simmer and stew and to consider the various angles. Social media is good for that. I get to see what everyone thinks, whether I like it or not.

I feel compelled, for some reason, to throw my two cents into the marketplace of ideas on the subject. But first, let me summarize some of the responses I have seen on social media. If I don’t get them exactly right, I hope you will forgive me. I have tried not to pay attention after all. You can set me straight in the comments below.

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Race: Building Bridges in a War Torn Country

 


Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s legacy lives on in his son. He says here in the video above that he is a bridge builder, as a swarm of journalists try to get him to burn that bridge. I am deeply impressed with admiration for his response.

If you haven’t watched the video yet, please watch it.

We live in a sharply divided nation that is polarized on many issues. Race is just one of them, but race is one of the most visceral and difficult of the issues we face. Dr. King preached a message of love and unity in a world of hatred and disunity. In some ways the world is little different than it was when he was alive.

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Should Google Censure the News?

Some of the backlash following the surprise results of the recent presidential election is the focus on the bogus news sites that were ubiquitous on social media during the dreadfully long campaign season. I’ve witnessed many conversations and multiple, people of good faith ask: how do we know when a news source is biased?

The latest thing on social media is the creation of lists of fake news sites for people to avoid. Everyone seems to be eager to jump in as a consultant. LA Times,[1] AOL News,[2] US News & World Report,[3] Snopes,[4] of course, and many, many others. The problem is compounded when the people reporting the list of fake news sites are charged with being misleading.[5]

Even the answer to the question of what news sites to avoid depends on who is answering the question. According to Scott Shackford of, Editor of Reason.com, false news and satirical news sites are one thing, but slanted news sites are another.[6] If the news being reported isn’t false, who’s to say how slanted is “fake”? Continue reading