The cure for fake news

February 18th, 2019

Whenever I hear the expression “fake news,” I usually roll my eyes.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s a problem; I do. But the cry “fake news” has become little more than a lazy way to deny facts or to express one’s disapproval of unfavorable news coverage. A twenty-first century method of shooting the messenger.

Our president deserves most of the blame for this phenomenon. Hardly a Trump rally takes place where the president doesn’t make derisive comments about the press corps. There are other offenders too, although it’s difficult to find any as brazen as President Trump.  

Don’t like the news? No problem. Just switch to news you do like. It’s called confirmation bias and it’s not difficult to fall into because we’ve never had more media choices. The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. PBS. Fox News. MSNBC. The conspiracy theorist with a website and a YouTube channel.

Wait, what?

Yes, welcome to the democratization of the news media.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, and thanks to the internet, anyone with a cheap laptop and access to Wi-Fi can now own their own press. So theoretically, your uncle with the tin foil hat can reach as many people online as CNN, maybe more. That’s a healthy thing as long as the consumers of your uncle’s content know how to think critically and have a healthy skepticism when it comes to unproven news sources.

But what happens when they don’t?

An extreme example might be they start believing the earth is flat.

Flat earth? Really?

In the age of the internet, that example isn’t as extreme as you might think. In fact, the numbers indicate that the percentage of people who believe the earth is flat is actually on the rise. Yes, you read that correctly.

The Guardian recently profiled the growing “flat earth” movement.

And a study has linked this increase in the number of flat-earthers to YouTube videos.

Yes, YouTube. The home of Logan Paul, PewDiePie and crazy cat videos is now shaping worldviews (literally!) Welcome to the age where CBS News apparently can’t be trusted but Super Right Wing Patriot’s latest broadcast from his garage is gospel.

The flat earth video from The Guardian helped me see how groups like ISIS or the anti-vax crowd gain traction. Insanity loves company and the desire to belong to something unconventional and to go against the grain can be quite seductive  bewitching even.

If we can’t all agree on whether or not the earth is round, how are we going to discuss important issues like poverty, hunger, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, gun violence, abortion, climate change, racism, health care and income disparity?

This is why respected brand name media outlets have never been more important to our society. Organizations like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, CBS News. We need to know that we can trust our news sources.

Does that mean there’s no room for newer news sources? Of course not! But they have to prove themselves. Trust is earned.

What about bias? Aren’t these publications and networks biased?

Probably. Bias is hard to avoid. But it can be corrected for. In a time when trust of the media is at an all time low, the major media organizations would do well to approach negative preconceptions with humility, not indignation. Legacy media outlets must be vigilant in living up to the good reputations they believe they’ve already attained.

As responsible citizens and consumers of media, it’s our job to educate ourselves and test the veracity of what we see and hear. One way to do this is to make sure we’re getting information from a number of reliable sources. Private and public. For-profit and non-profit. International and domestic.

And we must get over the notion that everything has to be free. Good journalism helps safeguard our democracy and freedom, so for heaven’s sake, isn’t it worth more to us than the price of our Netflix subscription?

Here are my some of my favorite news sources. I pay for subscriptions to several of these.

  1. The Wall Street Journal
  2. The New York Times
  3. TIME
  4. The Atlantic
  5. NPR
  6. CBS News
  7. PBS NewsHour
  8. The Guardian
  9. BBC News

There are many others. Pick one or two and make an investment in journalism. It’s time to be proactive and get informed.

The alternative is to let the algorithms and echo chambers of Facebook, Google and YouTube have an inordinate amount of influence on your views. A lie repeated often enough (especially with slick graphics) can become believable.

Just take a look at the flat earth folks if you think I'm exaggerating.

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