You who practice deceit, your tongue plots destruction;
it is like a sharpened razor.
You love evil rather than good,
falsehood rather than speaking the truth. Psalms 55:2,3
A topic of discussion in America recently has been the concept of “Fake News”. The concept came front and center during the last Presidential election because of slanted news stories by the media. The stories were either factually wrong, or misleading, at best. They were not objective.
Fake news is not new in America. Yellow journalism occurred in the late 1800’s. At the time, there was only print media – newspapers. Two owners of newspapers in New York – William Randolph Hearst and Joseph P. Pulitzer II – changed the content of papers by adding sensationalized stories, which eventually was called yellow journalism.
At one point, Hearst sent two reporters to Cuba to report on the Spanish-American war. When one of the reporters, William Remington, reported that there was not much going on in Cuba, Hearst sent this famous reply by telegram: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Many credit Hearst’s publicity which he used to sell his newspapers as one of the reasons for America entering the war.
Pulitzer would later become known for establishing the Pulitzer Prize in 1917 for 21 categories of journalism and the arts.
Today, journalism has expanded to television and other media beyond just the newspaper. Traditional journalism reported facts and the news objectively and without bias.
Another version of “news” is what is called the tabloids which grew popular in the last 50 years. Tabloids never were held up to the standards of journalism where stories were to be legitimate and well-researched. The covers of tabloids were highly sensationalized (they still are), but at least consumers knew that they should read stories with a high level of skepticism.
Today, I am seeing the traditional press gravitate more to the tabloid press mode, where media has blurred the distinction between objectively reporting the facts with being biased or even promoting false narratives.
In Russia, it’s called propaganda, which is basically news that carries some kernel of truth, but not the whole truth, leading you to assumptions and conclusions that are not valid.
Traditionally, newspapers reserved pages called the Opinion pages where the editorial staff provides their opinions about various topics. If you read the opinion pages, you know that you are getting someone’s opinion, complete with the writer’s own set of biases. Now, however, the opinion page has shifted to the front page, only they aren’t labeling it “Opinion” and are passing it as objective reporting.
Telling intentional false stories has been around since time began. There are even stories in the bible where stories were made up to gain an advantage over an adversary. Providing disinformation to the enemy is a long-used wartime strategy.
A recent example might be helpful. A story about Russian collusion of one of the presidential candidates was one built around a memo (called the “Trump Dossier”) which was passed off as authentic. It gave spurious accounts of false contacts that one of the presidential candidates had with Russia. It purported to have detailed information on Russian influence in the elections.
The problem? It was all made up, even though it was supposed to have been prepared by a former British Intelligence officer, Christopher Steele. The dossier was supposed to contain damaging information on one candidate, and was leapt upon by the mainstream media who favors candidates from the opposition party.
When I did the first draft of this post, I didn’t realize what a twist would occur with my dossier illustration. It has just been discovered that the dossier was paid for by the opposing presidential candidate and her party. It was then passed to newspapers as factual. Even one of the leading newspapers, the New York Times, is now crying “foul” and saying that they were lied to by the attorney for the opposition party.
In addition to the shift by media to biased reporting, we all get our share of fake news in our email inbox, often with outlandish assertions and not all of which are accurate or true. Fortunately, you can go to www.snopes.com and determine whether an email is true, false, or somewhere in between.
How does one protect themselves against fake news? One answer is critical thinking – the ability to objectively evaluate and analyze an issue and come to an independent conclusion or judgment.
Put another way, one now should keep a healthy dose of skepticism today. We have passed the time when you could rely on the press and journalists to be fair, objective and unbiased.
Will Rogers was one of the great humorists in the early 20th century. His homespun humor often came from newspapers. He said: “All I know is just what I read in the papers and that’s an alibi for my ignorance.” On another occasion, he said something similar, but then he said “I only believe half of what I read.”
I’ve always loved Will Rogers’ humor, including this: “Common sense ain’t common.” Will Rogers was skeptical of what he got from the media. Skepticism and critical thinking is needed now by everyone, particularly the next generation who increasingly rely on social media for their news.
Trust in the mainstream media is now at an all-time low according to a 2016 poll. In addition, a recent Harvard-Harris reports that two-thirds of people of all ideologies believe mainstream media publishes “fake news” as reported in The Hill.
Part of the reason for this media distrust is that there is some acceptance that complicated issues can be truncated down to a sound or video bite. Political messaging has gone from a sound bite of an average of 42.3 seconds in 1968 to seven seconds today according to Ray Williams in Psychology Today.
He continues: “This reinforces the belief that there are brief simple answers to complex questions that don’t require more intensive dialogue or reflection.”
Oxford Dictionary called “post-truth”the word of the year for 2016. Ray Williams goes on to note: “The post-truth doesn’t discount the truth, supported by facts, but rather, the post-truth is supported and justified by opinions or false claims where feelings and emotions are more important than facts.”
Skepticism and discernment requires critical thinking, and the next generation is lacking in this skill, which is worrisome. Employers are begging for critical thinking from the next generation. Often, they are disappointed.
As I have said before, social media platforms are “dumbing down” the next generation (See my post Dumb and Dumber, September 17, 2017). It’s impossible to form a reasoned opinion when your input is limited to 140 characters such as on Twitter.
The founder of Twitter, Evan Williams, admitted that social media is now a threat to “undermine our sense of truth.” He basically says that the low quality of information that is being consumed is limiting peoples’ “open-mindedness and respect for truth.”
If those quotes came from anyone else, I might not have paid much attention, but coming from the founder of Twitter, I find them scary and concerning.
Tim Elmore recently wrote a post on his blog entitled Five Steps to Fight Fake News. In his article, he notes that critical thinking will be the second most required skill in the workplace by 2020, according to The Future of Jobs prepared by the World Economic Forum in 2016.
Tim suggests some practical tips for developing habits to cultivate critical thinking that I found practical and useful.
- Always confirm the information from more than one source.
- Always seek to see the other side of an issue – avoid “group” think.
- Take time to evaluate the logic and the details.
- Try to detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning.
- Ask hard questions: who, what, where and why?
To the above list, I would add two:
- consider the source of the news, and
- encourage reading.
Be aware that the news source may have a previous bias one way or another. Then ask this question: Who stands to gain from this information? If you are comfortable with a news source that has been consistently objective in the past, then you have a better basis to rely on it.
As for reading, millennials are deficit in this area. Some 33% of millennials have never read a book. One cannot understand an issue in-depth without more reading, and headlines and slogans provided by social media are insufficient to convey issues in depth.
My youngest son is and example of the benefits of reading. In high school, he rarely, if at all, read books. After a ski accident that sidelined him for a year between his high schools and college, he spent six months in Australia with his sister, doing odd jobs to earn their way. They stayed in hostels that rarely had TV and it was there he learned to enjoy reading. I attribute his success in college to having learned this valuable skill.
In countries like Cameroon, China, and elsewhere, the government controls the content of media. Resulting stories are therefore suspect as to their accuracy. Alternatively, events that are news are not being reported at all.
An example of government interference with media is the oppression by the government of English-speaking people in a region of Cameroon that was previously under British rule. When several journalists recently attempted to report this story, they were arrested. Many still are in jail in Yaoundé, the capital. I am aware of this example because I have friends in Limbe, Cameroon, who keep me informed with what is going on via the internet.
As mentors, we can help our mentees develop an ability to think critically. It might be the first time someone has challenged them to think deeply about an issue, so be prepared for some discussion. Still, the challenge is to help them develop their own critical thinking about issues. A mentor’s job is not to tell them what to think, but encourage them how to think.
This is an important step for the next generation, particularly at a time when their future jobs require an ability to think critically to have the skills to succeed.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: You can be an asset to the next generation by challenging your mentee to do critical thinking of issues and topics in which they are interested.
FURTHER STUDY: A brief commentary on Yellow Journalism: http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/projects/Spring04/Vance/yellowjournalism.html
Information on the Pulitzer Prize: The Pulitzer Prizes
The Future of Jobs can be found at: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf
Ray Williams in Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201702/the-truth-about-fake-news
Some quotes by Will Rogers: https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/132444.Will_Rogers
The Hill’s poll on Fake News: http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/334897-poll-majority-says-mainstream-media-publishes-fake-news
WORSHIP: Listen to Tommy Walker sing Earnestly (We Want to Know): Earnestly (This is Eternal Life) by Tommy Walker – YouTube
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