How to avoid getting intellectual poop on your shoes.
I’m a skeptic.
I like being a skeptic.
It’s different than being a cynic, though people often mistake one for the other.
When I say I’m a skeptic, I mean that I ask questions with the ultimate goal of getting to something unassailably factual. I won’t say “true”, because that’s another slippery slope these days. Heck, “fact” seems to be up for debate (what with all the alternative ones), but to me, if something is fact, it is objectively verifiable, vetted, and confirmed by multiple sources who have no interest in what’s being established beyond doing their jobs.
That level of fact? Is news.
Editorials are not news, though they explore ideas and opinions around and about the news.
Talking heads are not news, though they may discuss news at length and make statements included in future news reports as “reaction”.
Tweets can be news, but tweeting something does not make it news. Same goes for Facebook posts. And Instagram images. And all of Snapchat, except the deer filter.
One of the most problematic aspects of our last election (and that’s saying something, because LONG LIST) was the proliferation of “fake news”: reports created by Russian hackers (or, you know, American college students with time on their hands) and posted on vaguely newspaper-y websites. These reports were widely shared across social media and accepted as fact, especially when they confirmed the sharer’s biases.
We all have biases. Lots of them. We might know about them, or we might not, but they are present and thriving in each of us. They might even be based on facts, these biases, but biases? Not facts.
Our biases reflect how we perceive the people and events around us, and the narrative we create to make sense of the world. They form a lens or filter that colors what we see (rarely with the added benefit of bringing into sharper focus).
We develop biases in a number of different ways: the influence of friends and family; the influence of our spiritual beliefs; our cultural history and practices; the events (traumatic and otherwise) in our lives; the perspectives of people we admire or loathe; and our personal hopes, fears, dreams, and obstacles.
Can we back some of them up with facts? Probably.
Can we back all of them up with facts? Not a chance. But we don’t need to, either, as long as we treat them like biases… and not facts.
There are many, many quotes about perception that may be running through your head right now, and I get that. How our perception becomes our reality, how our truth becomes high-impact fact in our lives when we believe it passionately (or stridently) enough, and how deeply affected you were by a study you read about a man who believed he was a donut.
Psychologists, theologians, and morning-shift Starbucks employees can all confirm that fierce belief manifests like truth in our lives: faith takes what we cannot see or touch, and makes it feel as real as real can be.
But our beliefs are not facts in the news sense, beyond the fact that we possess them and have chosen them.
Facts are what I want from news.
I know there’s a strong dose of speculation required from journalists to get further into a story — vetting sources, exploring leads, and so on — and their need to cultivate things like instinct and gut might mean what they’re reporting is rife with bias. And sometimes it is.
But great journalism doesn’t settle for confirmation of bias, or even half-assed verification. Great journalism pursues what really happened, what was really said, what was really done, and who was really involved. It also gets into the why, sometimes, albeit with the proviso that many whys come from a place of bias, and they’re just reporting what they’ve been told.
The problem with news / journalism / us right now is that we’re kind of out of love with facts. We’ve been told there are different kinds of facts, actually, which is like being told New Coke was the Real Thing.
We’ve been lied to, we’ve been hoodwinked, we’ve been bait-and-switched, so what are facts anyway? There’s so much BS out there, the facts are buried in it. Who wants to dig through that? If it sounds right, I’ll go with it.
But the factless life isn’t ideal, since it often leads us in the direction of fear and panic and misery.
“But Meg,” you say, “Currently, I experience fear, panic, and misery because of the facts. How exactly are facts improving my life?”
They aren’t, necessarily. And that’s the tough thing about news: what’s real is often what hurts and terrifies us most.
Yet I would choose the pain of real over the pain of fake every day of the week, and twice on Sunday. I ain’t sweating some rumor, people.
And that’s why I have five rules for my news and news sources:
- Bias is one thing. Partisan is another. I don’t rely on, or share news sources that have an overarching political perspective, regardless of what that perspective is, or whether it lines up with how I see the world. I might read it, but I won’t represent it as fact.
- Opinions can be about the news, and can have an influence on how people respond to the news, but opinion? Not fact. I enjoy learning how smart thinkers and people with more / different life experiences than mine perceive the world around them… but I don’t call them news. And if the writer represents their opinion as anything but their opinion, I don’t share it, period.
- Expect more from journalists. You know, things like ethics. Relentless fact checking. Resistance to being used as a mouthpiece by a particular party or individual. Skepticism about voices and sources. Not putting themselves in the middle of the story unless they make it clear that’s what’s happening. And, one more time, a big round of applause for ethics.
- The “a broken clock is right twice a day” rule = social media. Even complete idiots can stumble on truth and facts at times, but that doesn’t mean they’re not complete idiots. A neo-Nazi can look up at the sky, see that it is blue, and tell you so, but doesn’t mean anything else they say is worth repeating or listening to. If you see something you want to share, do some clicking to get to the original source. Can you hang with the other things they’re posting? Can you deal with their tone, their perspective, their “take”? If not, don’t amplify them, regardless of how much you like that one little post they made, or however much it confirms something you want to be true.
- “I just thought it was interesting” is a piss-poor excuse for posting tomfoolery. This is how gossip works. This is how rumors work. This is how wild speculation becomes front page stupidity. This is how lives get ruined while people shrug and say, “I didn’t say it was true, it’s just what I heard.” The Telephone Game was fun at birthday parties, but it fails miserably as a basis for communication in our society.
Being a skeptic is way less dramatic than being a fervent sharer.
One could even say it was less fun, if one found fun in sharing the latest shock headlines from dubious sources to garner an avalanche of comments.
But here’s the thing: we’re at a point where there’s so much actual crazy going on that the fake crazy doesn’t need a place of prominence in our lives. Don’t give it a platform in your life, or even the opportunity to whisper in your ear. Little by little, if we expect more, we might change how stories are told.
We deserve the real deal.
And that? Is a fact.