The Civil War on Ignorance in the Digital Age

In the past two weeks, I’d say we have all disagreed with someone we care about. We have all had a “WTF?” moment when reading someone’s social media post. I’d say we have all felt divided amongst our country. Today, I declare war on ignorance. I am defining ignorance as believing everything you read on the internet. It is letting anyone else think for you, instead of being your own person and having your own ideas. In the past two weeks, I have seen more bias news than reliable news. People are trying to tell me what to think. Tell me who to blame. Tell me who to believe. But I have been trained to question everything and to think critically. This is our birthright, as a nation, and its being manipulated. 

Back in the early 2000’s, one of the first rules I ever learned in my college journalism course was that: it is the duty of the reporter to refrain from being bias (My Professor, Arthur Z. Kamin, NJ). This was achieved by staying out of the story, or as Seton Hill University’s Jerz’s literacy blog calls it, “adopting the perspective of the invisible observer,” to capture an “objective point of view” that is “fair to every side of an issue, avoiding bias.” But this ethical code of journalism appears to have been washed away by an abundance of self-published authors, blogs, social media influence and political control over the media— an infestation of reporter’s inability to separate themselves and their emotions from the news. They are trying t think for us-to recruit us to their cause, the way a cult would.

Our country is becoming divided on issues that the vast majority doesn’t even investigate. For instance, how many comment wars have we seen on Facebook over this week’s current events? How many tweets are shared and recorded as news? How many articles and statements are going viral on social media that haven’t been fact checked? Haven’t been investigated? How many people throw temper tantrums when confronted with this reality? I am not talking about Republicans or Democrats—I am talking about us—the people who don’t investigate. My war on ignorance is with you.

Where is the truth and how can we find it?  The first step to recovery… we need to admit we have a problem before we can begin to fix it.

Today, there is no shortage of “fake news,” especially since social media sites dominate the public’s exposure to it.  The Onion, a satirical newspaper with often ridiculous and outrageous headlines, has been mistaken for actual news by readers, major public figures and actual news organizations on multiple occasions. Fake news and even bias news articles are heavily influencing public opinion and it is time that we begin questioning the authenticity of everything we read on the internet. I mean everything. Right Wing. Left Wing. Everything!

Since the rapid growth of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and the grim reaper lurking in the shadows of dying print media, news stories have become flooded with opinion pieces and editorials, rather than hard news stories. Why? Much like participating in real discussions or virtual ones on social media, readers react and participate in the news when the reporter takes a side and a comment box is prevalent below such an article. This is bias news. It is everywhere. We can’t escape it. There is a time and a place for this, but we can’t strategize our hard news stories around beliefs and emotions felt by our source of information-the reporter.

At some point, during the turn of this century and the internet explosion, the Millennial generation, due to their technological need to interact with information, has been the sought-after market for keeping the media relevant. In an attempt to keep their heads slightly above water, during a time of financial instability and the inevitable final sunset of print media, that will occur sometime this century, they rely on adapting their product to the new generations.  Industries are focusing on gaining paid subscriptions, monitoring site traffic and popularity to gain needed advertisers to turn a barely menial profit and survive amongst the internet’s revolution of free information. It’s no secret that newspapers are struggling to survive but in order to keep them alive, we need to question them. We need to hold them accountable, we need to make sure they are accurate. 

This is happening because anybody can publish information on the internet. In order to preserve real news, we need to question it. We need to hold our reporters to being unbiased and reporting the news and keeping their opinions in the OP/ED section. We have the right to decide. We have the right to form our own opinions based on facts. We are not pawns in any politician’s Game of Thrones. 

A recent study by Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that, “Millennials connect to the world generally, which mixes news with social connection, problem solving, social action, and entertainment. Millennials also appear to be drawn into news that they might otherwise have ignored because peers are recommending and contextualizing it for them on social networks… 88 percent of Millennials get news from Facebook regularly.”

I’m talking about my generation, Millennials, because we are the majority now and it appears we are getting almost all of our news from a questionable source. We dominate the internet, the work force, and the future. Just because you read it on Facebook, doesn’t mean it’s true. Where is this information coming from? Is it accurate? We cannot keep oversharing false quotes, and turning lies into viral posts, because in the end—we all suffer.

In his book, Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the Wild Web, John McManus believes that part of the solution is a media-literate public that is able to find and support unbiased fact-based journalism.

But how do we do that? Well, like I teach my college writing students— we need to start by looking at the articles and questioning their authenticity.

  • Is this a major publication?
  • Does the article take a side and only support that side?
  • What is the date of publication? Are you trying to use outdated information, for example, basing an argument or story on laws that have since changed since an article was published?
  • Is it coming from a .com that can be purchased by anyone? Is it from somebody’s blog? Who owns the website, is it a politician, a special interest group that benefits from the information they are spreading? It is not a secret that .edu and .org sites are generally more credible because not just anybody can purchase and publish them.
  • Are there citations at the end of the article? Are they telling you where they got their information? Is the information bias? Question the statistics. Demand the proof.

Alicia Swasy, of Illinois University, and three others, found that, in a 2015 experiment comparing traditional news reporting to citizen blogs, university students rated traditional journalism as more credible than citizen journalism. Also, participants assessed straight news articles as more credible than opinionated reports of the same news. When reading an article, remember to look at the authors, the sources of information, the credibility of the owners of the site—and question them.

Another book, When News Was News, author Terhi Rantanen “investigates how news has re-invented itself at different historical moments—from medieval storytellers, to nineteenth century telegraph news agencies, to twenty-first-century bloggers.” She concludes that we may be witnessing the death of “news” as it was conceived in the nineteenth century, and return to a concept much closer to its storytelling roots in the Middle Ages. Her epilogue discusses four major changes of the internet’s influence on news: the difference between events and news is disappearing, the difference between information and news is disappearing, the difference between news and comment is disappearing, and the difference between news and entertainment is disappearing. Remember, if all of these elements of our news are disappearing, we are exposing ourselves to news under the bias microscope. We need to know the facts. We need to think for ourselves. We need to make sure we aren’t being manipulated by the news.

Question your sources of information. Read the actual articles, not just the headlines. Read our constitution. Read our laws. Read our famous court cases.

Fact check your sources before starting a comment war on social media, before following a tribe of people, be your own person.

I’m not writing in the hopes of telling anyone what to think, to influence anyone’s political views, or to change anyone’s morals. I am writing to help you find the truth and to be educated on the issues you hold close, that ignite passion in your soul. That passion is what unifies us as American citizens, our freedom is the the heart of our roots here in this country. But we need to learn how to decipher facts from opinions, to form our own opinions based on our own individual findings from questioning our news sources. We need to be conscious of the civil war we are fighting against each other based on false information. Because we read headlines and not the whole article, because we don’t ever bother to research the information we find in those articles, because we haven’t bothered to listen before reacting. Before you share something on social media, before you write a 200 word comment opposing an article that someone has shared, find out if the news is credible first. And don’t cry when you’re source is wrong. Learn something, research deeper, find your own loophole and fight back.

I am not nearly as afraid of terrorism in our country as I am of ignorance.

 

 

Sources:

American Press Institute. How Millennials Get News: Inside the habits of America’s first digital

generation, 15 March 2016,

www.americanpressinstitute.org/publications/reports/survey-research/millennials-news/

 

Jerz’s  Literacy Blog, “The Invisible Observer”, 12 August 2015

jerz.setonhill.edu/writing/journalism1

 

McManus, John (2009). Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print,

Broadcast and on the Wild Web. Sunnyvale, CA: Unvar- nished Press, pp. 272.

 

Rantanen, Terhi (2009). When News Was New. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 154.

 

Swasy, Tandoc, Bhandari, Davis. Newspaper Research Journal. Jun2015, Vol. 36 Issue

2, p225-236. 12p.

 

The Associated Press & Context-Based Research Group. (2008). A new model for news:

Studying the deep structure of young-adult news consumption.

www.ap.org/newmodel.pdf

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