Defending importance of journalistic values in a post-truth world

A man goes to the doctor, only for the doctor to realize the man has a tumor in an inoperable part of his brain and is likely to die. Does he tell the man, only to cause him pain for something over which he has no control, or does he keep it secret, knowing the man may die without having all his affairs in order?

There is a third option, of course. The doctor could tell his patient everything’s fine. Amazing, even. If fact, he could tell his patient that, because of the tumor, he can now fly, and as the patient leaps out of a nearby window and plummets to his death, the doctor can at least feel satisfaction in knowing that it wasn’t the tumor that killed him.

Much like that doctor, the media often finds itself in a similar scenario, stuck between the choice of delivering the news as it is or spinning it.

The purpose of the news is to inform, not to hide or to invent new, more comfortable realities for the public to live in. A side effect of living in the “Information Age,” in which anyone can be reached through social media platforms that live in their pockets, is that information has been weaponized. Battle lines have been drawn, and reputable news sources are now being attacked by punditry, talking heads, fake news mills and accusations of bias against even moderate news sources.

The war on reality has begun.

Those in power have always treated the media as the opposition. After all, no one likes to have their dirty laundry aired. However, pushing back against the media and declaring an outright war against the facts are two different things.

The sale of totalitarian fiction, in which an oppressive state controls life, death, food, war and information, is on the rise, and it’s easy to see why – the authenticity of news stories and how that news is delivered is increasingly being brought into question.

People are suddenly picking up dystopian literature like Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” and George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” in which the media itself becomes a state-controlled propaganda machine. This type of rhetoric is damaging to the reputation of a resource meant to inform and empower the public.

It’s no coincidence these novels are soaring up the bestseller lists or conspicuously appearing in bookstores. The public’s current obsession is a refusal to accept reality. Instead, people are falling victim to conformation bias and propaganda from sources that are less than reputable.

The press has a duty to the people — all people — to inform and educate. There are news sources on both sides of the political spectrum that bend information or present biased reporting. This is nothing new and stretches back to the days when newspapers were the voice of a particular political party, such as the Democratic-leaning New York World or Washington, D.C.’s National Republican back in the 1860s. But anyone should be able to appreciate the difference between the Moon Hoax of 1835, in which the New York Sun reported strange centaur-like creatures on the surface of the Moon, and CNN providing video evidence of how many people are at a protest.

The first requires a leap of faith. The other requires denying what one sees, like in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” when O’Brien suggests to Winston Smith that if Big Brother believes he can fly, and the Party says Big Brother can fly, then all it would take for Big Brother to lift off the ground is for Winston also to believe it.

That sort of power is intoxicating, but it can also lead to everyone living inside their own bubble. The “Information Age” becomes the “Opinion Age.” Left, right, black, white, conservative or liberal, there are legions of Facebook pages willing to cater to one side or another with rage-inducing headlines ripped right out of the pages of a tabloid. It all acts as an echo chamber that each side is more than comfortable to hide in, assured that they are right and the other side is wrong, while drowning in the deafening noise of “alternative facts.” It doesn’t take long before consumers start to reject any news outlet that doesn’t tell them exactly what they want to hear.

There is also the problem of apathy. People would rather forget about what’s going on in their own political climate and look at puppies instead. This is understandable — the University Press staff is particularly fond of corgis — but a public that is entirely disengaged from the news is not the answer. This is why having reliable sources of information is more important now than ever.

It is every citizen’s job as a consumer to find news sources that present facts with minimal bias and that value truth above sensationalism.

How does one do that? By fact-checking news outlets against one another and reading different news sources. Wait until a story pops up in several news outlets before judging its authenticity. Be wary of opinion dressed up as news, even if it agrees with deeply-held suspicions of what “the other side” may be up to.

There are other sources than the New York Times and Fox News. For conservatives, there are the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, the Washington Times and the Dallas Morning News. For liberals, there are the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Mother Jones and the Atlantic — and many other publications cover a range of issues.

It’s also important to not just read one side, but both. Read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, or the Washington Post and the L.A. Times. It’s important that we not retreat into our own echo chambers and block out dissenting opinions, or else we lose the one thing that keeps our government in check — transparency.

Journalist Nellie Bly exposed the oppressive circumstances for women incarcerated on Blackwell’s Island in 1887. Ida Tarbell documented the attempts of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company to establish a monopoly in 1904. Without reporters keeping an eye out for corruption and abuse, there’s no telling what these institutions could have gotten away with. As James Madison once said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” If institutions could be trusted, the press would not be needed.

The press exists to hold those in power accountable. It exists to shed light on the parts of government and bureaucracy that would otherwise remain in the dark. This is why it’s dangerous for President Trump to declare CNN “fake news” or for President Obama to ban Fox News from the White House Press Briefing Room. It sets a precedent that one outlet is to be favored over another, and it’s precisely that thinking that leads to state-sponsored media.

A distrust of the media is the first step to an uninformed nation. The Founding Fathers’ First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution includes five rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably assemble, and freedom to petition one’s government.

It was Benjamin Franklin’s work at the Pennsylvania Gazette and his “Join, or Die” cartoon that stoked the fires of colonial revolution in the 1750s. It was with the circulation of his pamphlet, “Common Sense,” in 1776, that Thomas Paine inflamed his fellow colonists to declare independence. Without these and other ideas being reprinted in newspapers across the original 13 Colonies of the U.S., the repressive government of King George III would likely not have been defeated in the Revolutionary War, and the Americas would be under the reign of a monarch.

This is why it’s important to have a free media. When one right is infringed upon, the only thing that can safeguard against that happening again is the press. James Madison once called the freedom of the press, “The only effectual guardian of every other right,” because an informed public is the only thing that can keep, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” from becoming just, “Life.”

It can be easy to get lost in a sea of hatred — a confirmation bias that blinds a person to the facts and only causes their hate to grow deeper. Vigilance for the truth, above all else, is a more difficult but more rewarding path. It’s a path that we all must take together, and media is the light on that path, no matter what direction we are traveling.

As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.”

In this “post-truth” era, the University Press is committed to transparency, honesty and the staff will continue to work to uphold the values of a free democracy.

Learn more about Lamar University at lamar.edu

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