A version of this article appeared on print in our January 2017 issue.
As the means by which people learn about the world and the happenings of today from the comfort of their kitchen counter or their favorite comfy chair, journalism is always important. It’s a market; people actively consume the productions of journalists. But, like every market, people can exploit it. That is exactly what happened this election cycle.
Rogue faux-journalists spread rumors and wrote false articles that duped, tricked, and mislead readers throughout this election season. Suddenly, the pool of online news articles became saturated with lies and exaggerations. People’s political leanings and biases allowed false stories to survive and thrive for one reason only: we believe what we want to believe.
Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is post-truth, which they define as “relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” The term exists hand in hand with confirmation bias, defined by Oxford as: “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.”
That people make decisions based off of their emotions rather than the truth has become a problem as fake news websites have published fake news articles. As a result, readers have accepted many outrageous articles as truth. For example, WTOE 5 News published an article claiming the Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president. Those of us who read reliable news sources would recognize this story as false. We would realize the outrageous nature of the article, and proceed to fact-check it against other sources to ensure what we read is what really happened.
Others who have adopted this post-truth attitude, however, would ignore the ridiculous claims in this article because of their personal bias. As these readers consume more and more of these false articles, they enter an alternate reality where the facts have little influence. So, when a fake news site claims that an FBI agent suspected in the leaking of Hillary Clinton’s emails was found dead, they have little trouble believing it.
Many people have posted fake articles, without reading farther than the headline, on social media, creating a problem for companies like Facebook and Google, who have come under fire for the presence of fake news stories on their sites. Some have argued this spreading of fake news was a major factor in the election.
But it is not these companies that are most at fault, as journalists and readers need to accept their roles as well. Journalists have a tremendous responsibility to all those who depend on them for their news. They must respect their readership by reporting the facts.
But the reality of this post-truth world is that not everyone who publishes an article follows these standards. These writers would rather take advantage of the emotions of their readers to gain attention. In short, they harness the post-truth attitude that has pervaded society. So while we would like to think that we can trust everything we read, we have to recognize that there has been a shift in the publishing of news.
Therefore, it lies with readers to determine which articles to trust and which ones to dismiss. Readers must be conscious of the sources from which they obtain information. They have to read more than the headline of an article before sharing it.
We cannot become trapped in an alternate world where our opinions outweigh the importance of truth. It falls on all of us to ensure the news we read and share is accurate, or facts will cease to matter. This becomes the equivalent to censorship: we cannot untangle the reality from the web of fantasies.
Of course, this is also a crucial time for journalists, like us here at The Bradford, to continue reporting the facts. At a point where it seems the truth does not matter, it becomes journalists’ responsibility to remain dedicated to our mission. For The Bradford, that means to “be honest and unbiased in the way we collect and report news.” To do this, we aim for transparency in distinguishing our opinions and blogs as such. This practice is essential for the running of an honest newspaper, and it is essential for coping with the post-truth attitude that threatens the name of journalism.