This scene greets me every Sunday when I go to church. I’ve always thought it looks like a hidden Hobbit house or The Shire might be beyond that landscape. Thick vines cover every inch and obscure what lies on the other side of that fence.
This photo also encapsulates this election cycle, doesn’t it? It’s hard to sort through all the half-truths, untruths, fabrications, and exaggerations not just from the candidates but from the various streams of information online and through social media.
With the cacophony of voices, how do we decide who to listen to? One political party reviles the mainstream media to the point of advocating for the lynching of journalists, while the other party appears to be in the mainstream media’s pocket, with a former CNN analyst sending debate questions to the Clinton campaign. Independent pro-Trump “news” websites run by enterprising entrepreneurs in the country of Macedonia have sprouted up by the hundreds and publish all sorts of “click bate” false stories. Voters also have to sort through completely bogus stories shared on twitter and FaceBook, which adds another layer of complexity to the news.
Consequently, many American voters have become convinced of “facts” that have been proven to be completely false. There will always be a segment of society that is predisposed to disbelieve everything put out by the government. There will also be people who believe the government actively deceives Americans in order to push hidden global agendas. And in this election cycle, we have Candidate A completely misrepresenting the policies of Candidate B.
As you weigh your decision tonight about who to vote for tomorrow, the teacher in me asks you to look for some key clues in order to ferret out the truth:
Hard Facts Backed By Evidence
As a debate coach, I learned to look for hard facts and taught my students to do the same. In a policy debate, the students who have credible evidence to back up their claims are the ones who go on to win debate rounds. Students quickly learn which sources are more credible than others: scholarly articles, Supreme Court decisions, academic studies, and congressional research reports were considered “gold” in terms of credibility. Students also looked for quotes from experts in articles published in mainstream media sources such as major newspaper publications and cable news networks. Published transcripts of congressional hearings and speeches were other credible sources. Similarly, voters looking for the truth can dig it out in scholarly articles, Supreme Court decisions, official documents, academic studies, transcripts, videos, and speeches.
Avoid Sensational Alien Babies
One way to judge whether news is real journalism or manufactured “click-bate” journalism is to look for repetition. If all the major news outlets (ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, AP, Reuters, BBC) are reporting the same set of facts or quotes about an event, the chances are higher that said fact is true. If only the National Enquirer is reporting that Candidate A had a baby with an alien from outer space, you can probably infer that article isn’t very credible.
When The News Media Lies
Journalists are always eager to “scoop” one another and (up until recently) have engaged in tactics to keep their integrity intact. When a journalist is caught lying, it’s big news. Remember Brian Williams? He was suspended for six months without pay. The morphing of news cycles into entertainment has, in some cases, sacrificed truth for ratings and pandering to the viewers. The few journalists who mess up should not lead to a mistrust of the entire mainstream media. Rather, viewers should demand integrity — and vote with their television remote when networks are caught being less than stellar in their practices.
We teach students to take into consideration the slant of their audience when choosing evidence. For example, debaters going to a competition in more liberal areas of the country might choose to quote CNN instead of Breitbart because their community judges may be more inclined to believe CNN over Breitbart.
True story: one of my students doing a speech on the Middle East quoted a source from Al Jazeera America; this student lost first place because one of the conservative judges was offended that she used a “Muslim” source.
Another true story: when I forwarded a news article from Huffington Post to a friend, she completely discounted the entire article because “I don’t trust anything from Huffington Post.” So I found the same information in a FoxNews article and forwarded it, with better results. Clearly, people are picky about who they trust for their news.
In fact, a Pew Research study found significant polarization between consistent liberals and consistent conservatives in terms of which media they trust. Liberals name an array of news sources (CNN, MSNBC, NYT, NPR), while nearly half of conservatives (47%) preferred FoxNews and were more inclined to distrust other news sources. It could be said that rather than media bias, some of us have viewer bias.
Look through the weeds. Beware of fake news. Seek out credible sources. Be aware of media bias. Be aware of your own viewer bias. And then, once you are informed…go vote!
May God Bless America, and may we be a people of His Kingdom, brothers and sisters who may disagree about the way we go about solving problems but who come together and agree that our beautiful country is worth voting for.