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?

Continue reading

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.