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Fake news and the post-truth culture

Although honorable, serious journalists work hard to get facts straight, the unconscious ideological bias of journalists is a real problem.

(Kayla Velasquez/Unsplash.com)

Has America become home to a post-truth culture? I ran into that phrase—“post-truth culture”—casually applied to the United States, in something I was reading, and it brought me up short. Have things really gotten that bad, I asked myself, or was the writer only saying something attention-grabbing for effect?

Assuming a bit of both, I nevertheless knew immediately what he meant, and that in itself tends to suggest that there’s a real problem here. A post-truth culture is first cousin to fake news, and everyone has heard of that thanks to President Trump, whose critics say he’s no mean practitioner in this line himself.

The Vatican presumably was not trying to grab attention recently but only alluding to a widely recognized problem in setting the theme for next year’s World Communications Day: “The Truth Will Set You Free—Fake News and Journalism for Peace.” A statement by Pope Francis is expected in January, with the “day” itself to be observed many places next May.

In a brief explanation accompanying the announcement, the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication said the aim was to promote reflection on what it called “the causes, logic, and consequences of misinformation in the media.”

Herewith a few unsolicited thoughts about that from an American perspective.

First of all, here’s hoping the Pope doesn’t fall into the trap of lambasting mainstream media. Having spent many years working in and around the news business, I know that serious journalists aren’t really the problem.

Yes, news people do make mistakes, but knowingly passing off fiction as fact isn’t one of them. Honorable journalists (there are plenty) work hard to get facts straight, and when they do get something wrong, it’s usually due to human error or the difficulty of covering complex stories under the twin pressures of competition and time.

That said, though, the unconscious ideological bias of journalists is a real problem, visible in much of the coverage, both pro and con, of President Trump. The best defense against it for readers and viewers and listeners lies in constant self-examination and self-criticism—of media by media—although the voluntary creation of independent evaluation boards to review and critique journalists’ performance might also help.

But it’s essential to realize that the heart of the problem of fake news (and the post-truth culture, if there really is one) doesn’t reside in the traditional media but in the proliferation of ideologically polarized websites and social media in recent years. If you want to view something with alarm, start here.

And here, one might add, is where “peace” in the Communications Day theme becomes relevant. The polarization in this sector of the media world—the sector inhabited by countless blogs and Twitter and the like—is now visible in the demonizing of persons and the distorting of issues, the projection of a black-and-white world where it’s forever “us” (good guys) vs. “them” (bad guys constantly trying to catch us with our guard down), and the routine practice of rumor-mongering and defamation. To dignify this by calling it fake “news” would be to give it more credence than it deserves.

Short of state censorship, which would be a pseudo-remedy worse than the disease itself, the solution evidently resides in the wisdom of “Caveat emptor”—let the buyer beware. News consumers must be judicious in their selection of information sources and should make a habit of consulting multiple ones of varied ideological hues. Hard work, yes, but this is what getting to the truth requires in a post-truth world.

About Russell Shaw 168 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.

6 Comments

    • The better question is “do we live in a Church led by post-truth bishops?” The bishops and many clergy are not giving us Church teaching on migration and “refugees.” The Church teaches in the Catechism #2241 that immigrants are “obliged to obey…[the U.S. immigration] laws…”.

      It follows that illegal immigrant families – including “DACA dreamers” – are required to be deported. Justice demands that those families which break U.S. immigration laws should be deported as a family; amnesty for illegals and illegal immigration itself are gravely sinful forms of theft.

      The Church also teaches, “the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and its members.” (1909)

      Since the Vatican has walls, it can be deduced that the U.S. can, and should, have walls to “ensure…the security” of the U.S.

      This is Catholic doctrine, folks, and President Trump has merely defended Catholic doctrine on the common good.

      Most of the U.S. bishops, on the other hand, seem to be defaming the President and propagating falsehoods regarding Church teaching on the common good.

  1. Just a thought. I know people who seem to be uninterested in what you might read in the newspaper and are unwilling to even read the news on the web. What do they read? Comments they get from friends on facebook, etc. They devour fake news, fake history, fake science, fake medicine, etc. It’s what I call a village mentality. Something becomes news or truth because someone I know thinks it or says it. No idea how to solve this problem.

  2. An excellent article. But I disagree that the heart of the problem is not the mainstream news media.

    The reason that alternate “news sources” such as Rush Limbaugh became wildly popular was because the media increasingly told only partial truths.

    Today, hardly anyone believes they’re getting a semblance of the full truth from the media, thus people now gravitate towards alternate sources they trust more.

    The solution is for news media to do some actual soul searching and to conduct a mass hiring of conservative journalists to equalize the implicit psychological bias. The process must first start by getting better editors who are firmly devoted to the truth.

  3. “Having spent many years working in and around the news business, I know that serious journalists aren’t really the problem. Yes, news people do make mistakes, but knowingly passing off fiction as fact isn’t one of them.” Mr. Shaw, if being a past spokesman for the NCCB did not already invalidate your opinion, this loony statement surely did. We “consumers” of media “truth” have seen a lot in the past two years (to say nothing of the past 40 years). Just whom do you think you are kidding?

  4. Fake news used to go by the generic term; Lies. That goes back to the founding of the country, see historical Jefferson and Adams articles, and continued right through the Civil War with slanders against Lincoln, to international items like the sinking of the Maine, cover up of the Ukrainian famine, the Obama birth certificate and now Trump and Russia. It appears in mainstream media and is a large,if not major part of the zeitgeist. The most obvious current example is the 57% of people in an MSN poll who think their taxes will be raised under the Republican tax bill when, in fact, the independent CBO says that, at most, 5% will see their taxes raised. This disinformation came straight from lying politicians and their sycophant media whores.

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