There Are (Not) Two Sides to Every Story

Let us examine the old saw, “There are two sides to every story.” Every reporter worth his pen and notepad knows this to be untrue. Many issues have more than two sides.

Consider the many viewpoints of those involved with a factory that sends wastewater into the local river.

  1. The company’s executives believe that its outflow is proper, safe, and meets all environmental regulations.
  2. Health advocates allege that any emission is a threat, and wants the plant shut down.
  3. Politicians are in favor of a middle ground that preserves jobs while protecting public health.
  4. A start up firm has demonstrated that its technology can solve the problem.

There are many sides to everyday situations like this.

fake-news-on-monitor

At the other end of the news spectrum, some matters are so settled or so factual that they have only one side. I am 6’2” tall. This is indisputable (yes, I recognize that no reporter in her right mind would ever consider doing a story about my height; bear with me here). Now, along comes some disreputable scoundrel claiming that I wear platform shoes and am really 5”8”. Another rascal maintains that I slouch so am in reality 6’6”. Yet another asserts that a faulty measuring tape was used when gauging my height. They would be, in a word, crazy.

How can each of us sort through fake news reports? The best bet is to rely on trusted sources. Sure, even the major networks and newspapers can be hoodwinked, but at least they have editors to vet stories, which gives a better chance at legitimacy.

Some of the blame rests with us. A study by Stanford University researchers found that students in middle school through college largely proved unable to assess information contained in a news article. “Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite,” the report stated. “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

Yet news consumers by no means bear sole responsibility. News organizations must also step up to the plate. The hard truth is they need to accustom themselves to casting judgements they have not typically made and are hesitant to perform. For example, when a rogue organization or individual spews something that undeniably counters a well-established fact, editors should ignore it or at the very least label it as an untruth, and not offer up the rant as a viable second side to the story.

Let’s look at an example. The earth is round. Science has long ago proven this fact. The principle is bolstered by missions in earth orbit replete with photos that clearly show a round planet.

Now, let’s assume that an editor assigns one of her reporters to write a story about the roundness of the earth. Along comes a representative from the Flat Earth Society claiming that our orb is actually flat. Is the correspondent bound to include that clearly disproven view in his reporting? That reeks of irresponsibility. Oh, it might make for a brief, chuckle-inducing sidebar. But to include such a fake claim as news? Please.

Facebook’s popularity has placed it in the crosshairs, with the company criticized for allowing fake news to sway voters in the 2016 presidential contest. Like it or not, the online behemoth must entrust someone on its staff with taking on the role of editor, a title from which it runs and hides. “We’re testing several ways to make it easier to report a hoax if you see one on Facebook,” writes the company’s Vice President of News Feed Adam Mosseri in a December 15, 2016, blog post. “We’ve relied heavily on our community for help on this issue, and this can help us detect more fake news.”

Despite this faith in its “community,” someone at Facebook must be empowered to pull the trigger and make the call to take down any fake entries. And let’s not pick only on Facebook. Similar sites also owe it to their users. That is the real world in which we now live.

To its credit, Facebook has enlisted solid journalism organizations like the Associated Press and Poynter. ABC News—itself victimized by a web site spoofing the network’s logo and disseminating fake news—is also involved.

Even sports leagues have been plagued by fake news. An April 2016 fraud, for example, claimed that the NBA’s 2017 all-star game had been moved from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the aftermath of that state’s passage of a gender-restrictive bill relative to use of restrooms. The problem was as of April no decision had been made (in July the league did indeed move the game). Regardless, some reputable news outlets ran with it as fact in April. Shame on them for not confirming the account.

Poynter has taken a lead, advising journalists to be skeptical, not cynical, and outlining steps to follow in one of its two-minute online courses.

That’s not a bad way for the rest of us to evaluate—and question—the news we read, hear, and view. What steps do you take to critically judge the news you view?

 

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