During a recent visit to the Post Office I ran into a friend. Our conversation shifted to a discussion regarding the current political climate. He clearly sounded distraught. In his words, everything seems to be “one side against the other.” He added, “You just don’t know who to trust!” After our conversation, I left feeling unsettled. His comments were not unique. Sadly, I hear similar sentiments from many others.
So what is causing people to feel “you don’t know who to trust”? There are undoubtedly a number of factors. The Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder has cited a significant increase in disinformation (false information that is distributed with the intent to deceive) and misinformation (false information that is distributed without necessarily intending to deceive) in recent years. They cite several causes including the expanded use of social media, declining support for local news sources and the absence of regulatory standards. They point out that the increase in information disorder has resulted in reduced trust in many institutions, specifically the media. In fact, trust in national media, local media and social media has dropped significantly in the last six years alone, according to a recent study by Pew Research.
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Unfortunately, elected officials bear some responsibility for the breakdown in trust. In recent years it has become popular for some elected leaders to target the media if one doesn’t like what they have to say. Rather than discuss the issues raised, the media is vilified and mocked, eroding trust in mainstream media and adding confusion among citizens. Adding to that, elected leaders sometimes avoid full disclosure by revealing only a portion of the information. In other words, they reveal half of the facts. The portion revealed may be factual, but it is deceptive because these facts only represent part of the story. Half-facts are particularly problematic because they cloud the picture and lead to blaming and finger pointing. If you don’t like negative campaign ads, you probably don’t appreciate being fed half-facts.
At the same time, some national media organizations are contributing to declining trust. Many consumers are not aware that some of the major media organizations have news staff and opinion/entertainment staff. The news staff will typically strive to meet accurate, fair and balanced journalistic standards. Meanwhile, in the same media organization, under their opinion/entertainment umbrella, some of the most popular pundits share information that may make little pretense at accuracy, fairness or balance. Unfortunately, many media consumers fail to distinguish or recognize the difference between the news and opinion/entertainment. No wonder, people do not know who to trust.
Despite the complexity, as consumers of information, we must also own some the responsibility for the breakdown in trust. We should seek fact-based sources wherever possible. We should refrain from passing along information if it is not from verified sources. And, at the same time, we should recognize that there may be another side to the story.
Maria Ressa is a co-recipient for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Ressa leads a news organization in the Philippines and has dedicated her career and risked her freedom to promote truth. She is a model for ethical journalism. To state it plainly, Maria Ressa believes facts are important. She summarized the challenges we face in her statement, “Without facts, we can’t have truth. Without truth, we can’t have trust.” Maria Ressa does not accept half-facts and neither should we.