I remember my first experience of attending seriously to the daily newspaper, and not just the comics and sports scores. The 1970 Kent State shootings, an event that had occurred near my childhood home near Cleveland but shocked the world, jump-started my craving to understand the world through journalism.
The explosion of media through the internet was supposed to herald a new age for that understanding. But coincident trends in the narrowcasting of our choice of sources, some framing rigid opinion and even outright falsehood as “news,” suggest we need to adapt our approach.
We need to learn to read again.
While there have always been tabloid rags, the morning newspaper and the Big Three TV networks could historically be relied upon to set high standards for accuracy. Fact and opinion were clearly separated.
That world may appear quaint compared to the current one. The sheer velocity of information can outstrip our ability to manage it, and allow self-interested manipulators to rush in and take advantage.
The darker arts of political persuasion and the desperate economic competition for clicks have deeply co-opted public trust in journalistic honesty. Instead, much of what we click on generates the heat of grievance rather than the light of clarity and understanding. Legitimate journalism is now often lumped in with the shoddy and targeted cynically as slanted.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve had a unique few monthsas an observer of emotional responses to this new age. Business is, well, brisk, as some people panic about catastrophic outcomes in a “truth optional” world, and others are activated with stoked-up grievance.
Despite the current escalation in tension, let me suggest a brighter possible outlook. While truth is not a “given” but actually an advanced human development, the fact that we have come to expect it in our media is a sign of our incremental progress as civilized people.
I see three paths available to us. Only one goes upward.
The first road is in deeper immersion in sources that reinforce one’s own viewpoint and the grievances that accompany it. This is easy to do, especially with the self-reinforcing, addicting nature of social media algorithms. Yet shared understanding withers, as does personal wisdom.
A second path emerged recently: dropping out in frustration. “I just have to get away from Facebook for awhile, I don’t know what I can believe” has been a common sign-off. Yet there’s a hopelessness, even a forfeit in this approach. Going from a blind trust in the media to a paranoid reclusion won’t help things. We need an engaged public.
So, to route number three: we’ll need to grow up a bit as consumers of information. Examining everything we read as “source material,” with an open mind but without easy assumptions of truth, is the logical evolution of a public exposed to a spectrum of media from authentic to slanted to downright fraudulent. We have to behave more like detectives, anthropologists, even shrinks, and less like students, or kids at grandpa’s knee.
Staying engaged but circumspect, doing our homework on what smells outrageous for the sake of outrage, and even seeking out the opposite opinion for examination, it’s all more necessary now than ever.
Here’s my cautiously optimistic opinion: civil society is ultimately (but slowly) evolving, and that includes valuing trust and authenticity. Fake news, like any other kind of deception, will always be around. But it will inevitably lose its “market share” as we stop accepting it so easily and instead insist on validity.
Dr. Greg Sazima is a Roseville psychiatrist, educator and writer. He is a senior behavioral faculty member at the San Jose/O’Connor Family Medicine Residency Program, a Stanford Medical School affiliate. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.