Ron Bischof: Learning to evaluate the ‘fake news’

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary

“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild-wild-west-of-information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to,” Former President Barack Obama said at an innovation conference in Pittsburgh last October.

“There has to be, I think, some sort of way in which we can sort through information that passes some basic truthiness tests and those that we have to discard because they just don’t have any basis in anything that’s actually happening in the world,” Obama added during the White House Frontiers Conference on Oct. 13.

It’s a curious proposal that the press, and by extension free speech, be curated in the USA with its constitutionally recognized right not to be infringed by government.

Such “curating function” would require an entity to ‘select, organize, and present (information, etc.) typically using professional or expert knowledge,’” according to the OED. And that raises the question: who is to perform such filtering and validation? By what criteria will information be evaluated?

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” wrote Roman poet Juvenal.

Translating the Latin literally, that’s “Who will guard the guards themselves?” or “Who will watch the watchman?”

As an American citizen, I find this concept suspect, calling to mind a quote from noted American journalist and skeptic H. L. Mencken:

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

So is “fake news” a new phenomenon that’s uniquely threatening in our current society? A review of journalism history includes the “yellow” variety, i.e., news that isn’t based on research, facts and reliable public sources, instead offering sensationalism to sell newspapers and drive up media ratings/clicks.

Should we, therefore, trust media organizations to be unbiased sources of information? A Pew Research Center poll conducted Sept. 27-Oct. 10, 2016, before Election Day, found that the majority (59 percent) prefer news media to present facts without interpretation.

Consider what Jim Rutenberg, media reporter for the New York Times, wrote in an opinion piece last year:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

“Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.

“If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.

“That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”

Mr. Rutenberg then proceeds to argue that one candidate in the election is unique and journalists therefore have a duty to do more than report facts, contrary to the preferences of most news consumers.

Is it any wonder that just 28 percent of American adults believe journalists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being in a 2013 Pew poll?

How, then, does one evaluate news for veracity? Do it yourself! Draw from a range of disparate sources to avoid confirmation bias.

Take advantage of forums, such as those sponsored by The Signal, to gather information directly. Attend in person or via web video Santa Clarita City Council sessions.

Engage with those whose opinions vary from your own to consider fresh perspectives. Do your own research online or at your local library.

That’s what it takes to evaluate “news” objectively. Otherwise, you accept that others, who may not share your values, will “interpret” news according to theirs.

Ron Bischof is a Saugus resident.

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