Glen Argan: As media consumers, we should be wary of fake news

  • May 17, 2018

“Was this story about love, money, conquest or disaster?” That was the question Gordon Sinclair asked week after week on CBC-TV’s long-running Front Page Challenge. If a news story did not have at least one of those four elements, Sinclair surmised, it might be a story, but it wasn’t news.

The old reporter did not ask if the story were true. Today, he would have to ask that question too, as Pope Francis made clear in his message for the 2018 World Communications Day (May 13), which focused on “fake news.”

It’s long been hip to be cynical about what one reads, hears or sees in the media. Journalists have been listed among the least-trusted professions for decades. Yet, when we want to bolster our biases we’ve always felt free to grab yesterday’s newspaper and proclaim, “See! It says right here in black and white.”

News media have typically had a corps of veteran journalists who query every story before it goes out into the public. Even if a story had all Sinclair’s elements, it had to be demonstrably true. Otherwise, it didn’t get published. In my years working for daily newspapers, I’ve seen stories spiked or toned down because their grip on reality or fairness was too loose.

With the rise of the Internet and social media, anyone with a computer and a blog can publish any story they can concoct without having to go through the filter of their inquiring peers. Meanwhile, traditional journalism is in deep trouble due to the loss of advertising revenue. Since the turn of the century, more than 10,000 Canadian journalism jobs have disappeared.

Much of what passes for Internet journalism today is promotional material gilding the rose for some government, corporation or other organization. Meanwhile, traditional media outlets in Canada suffer from an ever-narrower concentration of ownership. The sources of truth are controlled by a wealthy few.

Fake news has to be seen within that context; it’s not an isolated phenomenon. Pope Francis describes fake news as “false information based on non-existent or distorted data meant to deceive and manipulate the reader. Spreading fake news can serve to advance specific goals, influence political decisions and serve economic interests.”

A fabricated news story can capture us in its thrall — especially if it tells a plausible tale of love, money, conquest or disaster, and especially if it appeals to our stereotypes and prejudices.

The genie of fake news is now out of the bottle and it will not be easy to stuff it back inside. As media consumers, we should be wary of unsubstantiated allegations and superficial sensationalism. We should refrain from convicting anyone in our minds before the evidence is in and before we have heard their side of the story.

Stories are the most effective way to convey truth. However, we should recognize that Sinclair’s definition of news is narrow and prone to sensationalism. It highlights the spectacular more than the meaningful. Pope Francis urges us to pray: “Where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety; where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions.”

The purpose of journalism should not be to titillate, but to inform people and help them shape their lives around truth. The fullest form of journalism presents the fullest form of truth. It engages the world and helps readers and viewers see that world through the eyes of Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life.

Ultimately, that is journalism produced from a Catholic perspective. It requires inquisitive reporters, critical columnists and editors with a broad range of knowledge and experience as well as a respect for ultimate truth.

The pool of Catholic journalism — just like mainstream journalism — has been draining for quite some time. Perhaps we are in an in-between time in the history of journalism. The existence of truth itself is now in question. It is time to work for a new era in which respect for truth is restored. It is never too late to work towards a journalism of sobriety and real questions to replace the journalism of love, money, conquest and disaster.

(Argan lives in Edmonton and is the interim editor of Living with Christ.)

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