The Truth is Out There: How to Discern Fact From Fiction in the Media

Today’s news is often delivered in less than 140 characters, via a status update or even in a video that disappears after viewing — bite-sized meals for our fast food appetites.

With news delivered at such a high speed rate, it is hard to determine whether what you are reading is the truth.

Carlie O’Donnell, a sophomore majoring in justice, was extensively taught in the classes she took at Mount Mary University to find reputable sources.  

She loves having access to all the information she would ever need, all within seconds of its release. But with information that accessible, the quality of information may be called into question.

“You never know if what you’re reading is true,” O’Donnell said. “Is that really what happened or is that what the vast majority of people’s opinions put into an article? It makes getting the facts very difficult.”

To avoid this dilemma, she tries to figure out what the article is about and where it originated from.

“You have to read multiple new media sites,” O’Donnell said. “You can’t just read Fox. You can’t just read CNN. You have to read them all because they all have their own biases.”

With the way our news is presented, she said, we never get two clear sides of the story.

“It leaves people to have to do a lot of critical thinking,” O’Donnell said. “But if you aren’t the type of person to do a lot of critical thinking, it leads you to do a lot of assuming — which is a danger within itself.”

She said we need to be more aware of what is shown in the media.

“If you’re consciously aware of it, you can combat some of the bias that is coming from it and take it with a grain of salt,” O’Donnell said.

Marmy Clason, chair of the communication department, used to teach her students how to find credible sources. With the height of mass media delivering and distorting our news, she decided to just tell her students to visit the sites that she knows are credible.

“If you’re not sophisticated enough to sift out what’s real and what’s fake, then you simply have to go to places that are real before you advance into a level of sophistication where you can figure it out yourself,” Clason said.

Like O’Donnell, Clason recommends seeking a broader perspective on what we consume in the news and read from people who disagree with us.

“If you think they’re biased, you can still read them,” she said. “It’s not like you’re reading evil … go read The Guardian; read Al Jazeera. Read people who disagree with you. There are columnists that I have read whose political ideology I disagree with, but they’re intelligent. I don’t always agree with them, but I appreciate their point of view and their writing.”

Clason thinks that we as a society have become so steeped in our own perspective that we rarely get a contrary perspective. We are only reading what is on our Facebook page or reading news that algorithms on the apps on our phones are giving us.

“It just becomes that echo chamber,” she said. “You’re opening yourself up to a lot of fake nonsense if that’s all you look at.”

Clason wants us to lose the sense that all news sources are biased. To her, all media is biased, but so are people. The intent of the media is to inform, she said, but there is an underside of trying to draw readers in.

“There is a non-ideological bias — we want to be the first, we want to get it out fast — it’s not always good,” Clason said. “It tends to get things out very piecemeal at times. There’s this hyperventilation over some stories that were not disclosed.”

Sister Joanne Poehlman, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, uses a metaphor of a fish swimming in water to help illustrate people’s understanding of the media.

“A teacher explains that a fish that swims does not understand water,” she said. “It does not have the ability to poke its head up to breathe air or go beneath to feel the mud. A student responds that the fish does not understand air or mud, but it knows water. The teacher then responds, ‘No, if all you know is water, you really don’t know water. You need something to compare it with.’”

Having the ability to compare someone’s opinion with your own gives you a new way to look at a situation.

According to Poehlman, we need to be more aware of our own biases.

“I stand here, someone else stands there,” Poehlman said. “We are human so we stand somewhere. But I can learn about someone else’s stance. I can’t change necessarily, but I can expand my horizon. I can see that other people are standing around me with different perspectives and I won’t see clearly if I only see from where I stand.”

Poehlman said having an open mind isn’t enough.

“We can only have an open mind if we know what mind we already have,” she said. “And then know that we might have blinders. We might be going with an open mind but forget that our background, our history and our culture has also shaped the lenses on our glasses that we think are taking us into open new territory.”

She suggests talking to people who have different perspectives or beliefs, and comparing them to your own experiences.

“It’s always a revolving door,” Poehlman said. “Diversity is great — we want to know about what is different. But we must take time to say, ‘how does that teach me something about who I am?’”

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