It seems most news networks these days spend the vast majority of their time accusing other broadcasters of dispensing fake news stories created to distract the public or perhaps slander a politician. Many people speak on the subject, including the current US president, as if this is a new event. The truth is that fake news has been around since ancient times, a tool of the social manipulator since humans began keeping written records. Of course, it is unethical to an extreme, its foundation one of deceit. However; the most shocking thing right now is that people act as if it’s a new trick and not the tired, played-out one it really is. Should we not come to expect it by now? After all these decades, should we not take everything the media produces with a grain of salt and practice due diligence in researching the information to find truth? Should we not stop blaming the media and, in fact, start blaming ourselves for allowing this bamboozle to happen time and time again? Is the history of manipulated news not a strong sermon that advocates for individual research and opinion? Is news even fact or truth to begin with or merely opinions based on the observation of an event or individual? What is “truth”?
By relating this next anecdote, I realize I’m putting myself at risk of letting my geek flag fly a little too high. I’ll take that chance.
Obi Wan Kenobi is speaking with Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi. He tells young Skywalker that many of the truths we cling to are from a certain point of view. In a way, old Ben Kenobi is correct: Many truths, even ones held by the majority of the public, are based on a point of view. Science, for all its celebrated wisdom and answers, is mainly theories which can amount to simple “best guesses” at times. Yet many people will speak of the Big Bang theory as if it’s ultimate truth; however, the word “theory” makes that argument invalid. Billions of religious followers find truth in their beliefs while finding the different beliefs of others ridiculous. Some believe the earth is flat; most know the truth is that the Earth is a sphere, just like every other celestial planet in the visible universe. Even though religious doctrine and the flat-Earth theory have paper-thin evidence, millions find truth in them. Truth is a point of view.
Truth is also fluid. It can change when new facts are presented. It can even be completely eradicated and replaced with new truth. Truth may also have different perspectives. While various groups might agree on a fundamental truth, there may be opposing details relative to a certain group’s truth. The “truth about truth” may be that truth is not as true as we’d like to believe. All the same, with so many variables, how can one ever really know the truth? How can one know with certainty what is true amongst all the different observations and points of view?
In this light, is the media responsible for covering all the bases of truth, or should it rest more on the individual’s shoulders to take all the presented information, research it, and then come to a conclusion that is truly unbiased? Can we hold the media in general responsible when, after all, it is sometimes individual journalists seeking fame? A good example comes to mind, one that I call the Octopus Ethic Story.
A few years back, a friend posted an article on Facebook that made the claim that “Science has proven that octopi are extraterrestrial.” Many of his friends were commenting how it made so much sense and that, finally, here was proof that we are not alone. I commented that I wanted to look into it and that I would get back to him. Sure enough, even a quick Google search showed other publications running the story, some supporting it and maybe even more debunking it as false or fake news. I researched it back to the original article, which came from Yahoo! News. The author of the article did make the claim that research scientists have “proven octopi are alien.” The writer, thankfully, had scruples enough to credit the academic paper on which this groundbreaking information was based. The original report, the researcher indeed had said that octopi DNA was “alien to anything we have seen before.” In other words, octopus DNA is “different” or “alien.” Nowhere does the researcher make a claim that octopi are from another planet. When I shared this truth with my friend on his Facebook wall, it did not receive the same fanfare as the original posting supporting the notion that octopi were from outer space. After all, truth is not just a point of view but the most favorable point of view.
Did the writer from Yahoo! News lie or distribute a fake news story? Or maybe did the media who picked up the story get a little too excited about what they thought they had read in an obscure academic paper? It’s hard to say, since only the writer of the article knew his/her actual intent. It could have been an honest mistake, or it could have been downright fabrication designed to make the writer look good or bring more “clicks” to the story. All so-called “fake news” stories can be seen from this vantage point. As we can see, however, with a little research, the truth, from a more logical and ethical point of view, can be established. Perhaps then, instead of blaming a faceless corporation with goals of ratings and viewer retainment —which, being translated, means “revenue” — we might find the real guilty party. To do this, one simply need look in the mirror. While false or fake news is unethical, doing little to no research before adopting any reported information as fact does not recommend the individual reader very highly.
While mass media should be ashamed of their unethical and sometimes ridiculous approach to reporting vital information to the public, those who take it at face value must shoulder their own responsibility in allowing it to spread. With minimal research, hearing all sides of the event from multiple sources and using reason and logical deduction, one can find the truth even in the fakest of news stories. After all, every lie began as a truth somewhere.
We should stop blaming the media and start taking the moral and ethical responsibility for finding the truth, whatever that may be.