How To Stay Informed in This Age of Fake News

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Last January, one week after the presidential oath of office, Eliot Cohen, Director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins, published an article in TheAtlantic.com from which this quote is taken:

Some Americans can fight abuses of power and disastrous policies directly—in courts, in congressional offices, in the press. But all can dedicate themselves to restoring the qualities upon which this republic, like all republics depends: on reverence for the truth; on a sober patriotism grounded in duty, moderation, respect for law, commitment to tradition, knowledge of our history, and open-mindedness.

Cohen is a political scientist. He’s also a neoconservative who served under Condoleezza Rice in the George W. Bush administration. I add this only to make clear he is no liberal, Democrat, or Clinton supporter.

What caught my eye was that his long list of “qualities upon which this republic … depends,”  began with “Reverence for the truth.” [Hence, my putting it in bold] It is this reverence for truth that I set out to write about this week.

What is truth? How do we recognize it when it’s in front of us? How does it differ from fact?

Beginning on the eve of last year’s presidential election, my blog went a bit off goal with a three-part Examining My Political Story, ending just before last Christmas with The Culture of Philanthropy. I wanted to address the questions that had been swirling around in my head. Now, a year later, I have more questions. 

How do we educate ourselves on the issues of the day? To whom do we listen? What do we read? How do we decide? How do we know what we know?

Often, there is no single “right” answer. Then the value is in the process of discussion or debate. And, as always, I’m in favor of “chewing” on an idea before you swallow it whole.

We seem to be living now in an era of anti-intellectualism, a time when “experts” are no longer admired and when “the truth” is no longer valued. This does not bode well for our republic, nor for our democracy. How do we combat this? How do we stay informed in this age of rampant fake news?

Long before we associated fake news with politics, Tracy Lee Karner, motivated by a misleading headline about a cure for fibromyalgia, wrote  “How to Identify Yellow Journalism” on her blog.

Karner wrote, “It requires diligent, shrewd effort to ferret out truth from lies in news coverage.” And she provided a list of things to be beware of if you want to avoid Yellow Journalism. Here are my favorites from her list.
  • Scary, Provocative, or Sensational Headlines
  • Quotes from unnamed sources or pseudo “experts”
  • Unabashed Self-Promotion
  • Pseudoscience–claims, beliefs or practices incorrectly represented as scientific
  • Articles written by writers who get paid for the number of “clicks” they generate.
I remember a sixth-grade class in which we learned what yellow journalism was. I remember learning that “a rag” was the vehicle in which this yellow journalism traveled. And, I remember learning to stay away from such rags. Sixth-grade!
That was the East Orange (NJ) public school system, I hasten to add. Thank you Dr. Richard Hayworth, the Superintendent of Schools; thank you Mr. Kenneth Pooler, principal of Ashland School, where I spent fourth to eighth grades; and thank you Miss Dorothy Platt, my sixth grade teacher. In addition to yellow journalism, I remember Miss Platt owned a horse.  (I was 12; of course I remember that).
How many high school students (never mind sixth graders) are taught to identify yellow journalism?  I don’t think many. Still, one can always learn to identify experts, track down sources, and discriminate between news that you like because it supports a belief you already hold and news that is fake.
It takes time. It takes energy. But fortunately, there are people who are paid to take the time and expend the energy to decipher just that. Check these sites out, find your favorite, and support it.
factcheck.org  a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center

I began this post with Eliot Cohen, so I’ll end with him too, from the same article.

There was nothing unanticipated in this first disturbing week of the Trump administration. It will not get better. Americans should therefore steel themselves, and hold their representatives to account. Those in a position to take a stand should do so, and those who are not should lay the groundwork for a better day. There is nothing great about the America that Trump thinks he is going to make; but in the end, it is the greatness of America that will stop him.

Eliot Cohen

I hope this post adds to that endeavor.

How about you? Where do you get your news? How do you stay informed? How important to you is following the news? Will you check out any of these sites?  

Next week: Reexamining those old wives’ tales we were taught as kids.

Interested in reading At Home on the Kazakh Steppe? I hope so.

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  1. Good morning, Janet!
    I do check these sites, and they are useful.
    I’m astounded by how many people just post fake stuff on FB all the time. It is often something that seems so obviously fake to me that I don’t understand how others don’t see it. All you have to do usually is Google the topic, and you can easily find out it’s not true.
    Of course, we have a president who constantly spouts fake information. . .
    Merril Smith recently posted…Silvered Dust of Time and Space: Quadrille and Yeats Challenge, Day 7My Profile

    • Permission has certainly been granted to deceive. That uncertainty about what and who to believe is, to me, the current biggest danger facing us. People have stopped “stopping” — taking time to think, to assess, to judge, to compare. We are a nation anchored in sound bites. Even those of us who blog regularly know — we must offer lots of white space, must keep our posts short, and must strive to keep it simple. Alas

  2. Janet — Like Merrill, I, too, check these sites, and they’re useful. In my book, Note to Self, I cited a few staggering statistics about lying (copied and pasted below):

    In 2007, the Washington Post ran an article by Dan Zak titled “The Truth About Lying.” He opens with, “We are liars and lie catchers, and the sport runs from the banal to the breathtaking, from personal to public. Right now, someone somewhere is lying about ‘having plans tonight.’ Meanwhile, someone else is discovering that his or her spouse has methodically concealed an affair.”

    In the same article, Robert Feldman, a social psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, was quoted as saying, “Experiments have found that ordinary people tell about two lies every ten minutes, with some people getting in as many as a dozen falsehoods in that period.”
    Laurie Buchanan recently posted…Standing AloneMy Profile

    • Fascinating, Laurie. Thank you. It ties in nicely with next week’s post. Your stats are staggering. We grow up being taught to lie; “pleased to meet you” comes most quickly to mind. Magic, whimsy, make believe, and deception: Somehow they’ve gotten tangled together.

    • Indeed. I couldn’t agree more, Tim.

      We must find a way to introduce more to the joy that comes with earnest and honest scholarship. That what we discover is worth the time and energy spent.

  3. Mostly from TV but I read the paper and facebook also, usually I will check for validity before reposting but have to admit occasionally something will upset me so much I jump the gun, luckily there is a delete button.

    • Hi Susan. We all can get caught up in it. I just learned the Edmund Burke quote I thought was so good (my featured photo) was more likely from John Stuart Mill. I knew the quote and when I searched for it, just accepted it was Burke because that’s what the anonymous meme said. Ironic, huh?

      • My husband and I actually looked into moving overseas, started with England but when you are retired you have to be Bill Gates rich or marry a Brit—we do have a couple that aren’t married and when I suggested we marry them and move over there my hubby didn’t go for it but he did think it was funny. Hopefully in the next year our country will start righting itself!