On Facebook today, professor and author Karen Swallow Prior posted a meme about the sliding scale of trustworthiness among many national and international media organizations. In the middle were news sources that were deemed “mainstream (minimal partisan bias),” and on each end, in the directions of left and right that have become so familiar to us, were sliding scales toward partisan bias, which the author of the meme labeled “utter garbage/conspiracy theories.” The scale also ran vertically, from “sensational or click bait” to “complex” analysis.
As Prior’s posts on Facebook often do, this meme elicited a barrage of comments. One commenter asked: “What is the source for this infographic?” And Prior replied: “Facebook meme. For viewer analysis.” And it was an appropriate response for an image whose author clearly had not taken credit. Each viewer could decide for herself whether the news agencies were properly placed on the dual continua.
But what if the meme were presented differently. What if the image was passed off as true, or at least factual, and the viewer simply believed the bias or lack thereof of each agency? Interestingly, that’s what many of the news agencies on the fringes of this meme do. They attempt to pass off bias as if it is unbiased, and though an analytic reader or viewer might call foul, too many of us simply pass the meme along, creating untold controversy or affirming a degree of untruthiness in the subsequent viewers that may or may not have been intended.
That’s the problem when we don’t know who to trust: we trust only ourselves. We believe or disbelieve information or supposed facts based on the degree to which they affirm or deny our already held beliefs. Often, when my husband and I are discussing current events, if he says something I already feel is true, I simply agree. If he throws out a stat or quote that refutes my belief, I demand (or ask nicely, depending on how fired up I am) to know his sources. Then, I accept the new information, but only if I agree with the source.
What have we done to ourselves, to facts and truth and reality, when the word of the year for 2016 is “post-truth,” according to the Oxford Dictionary. Interestingly, according to Prior in an article over at Think Christian, “post-truth” isn’t defined by saying truth no longer exists. It’s worse than that, Prior says: “The new word … describes an even more alarming condition in which truth is no longer really important at all.”
As a Christian, I reject the devaluing of truth in our culture, but I do so effectively only by rejecting the devaluing of truth in my own life. I can no longer be satisfied with believing only what affirms what I already know. I need to evaluate, analyze, and track down the truth, even if it means confronting error or uncertainty in my own dearly held beliefs. I need to ask, “whom am I willing to trust?” and be prepared to look again at the sources I simply accept as true and the ones I normally reject out of hand.
Even my faith may need a little shaking up: not that I will no longer trust Jesus or his Word. I will. I do. But even faith is subject to the interpretations and misinterpretations of others. In Acts, we read of a group of people, the Bereans, who weren’t content just to accept what their teachers told them. Instead, “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” I want to be a Berean, carefully examining not just every fact or claim, but every source of those facts and claims.
It’s not wise to go from trusting everyone and everything to trusting no one and nothing. That doesn’t ring true with me, either. But here we are, in a world where anyone can create or report breaking news. We hear and read all kinds of claims about pills, products, and programs. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves, and the truth, to follow the story, the claim, back to its author. To ask what’s in it for them. To follow the money. To verify it against another source. To understand the context. To explore possible alternatives.
Over time, I believe we’ll begin to know who it is we can really trust.
One of the greatest propagators of untruth around is the Internet. A recent article on the website of NPR, whom I trust for broad-ranging coverage though often left-leaning editorially, offers a checklist to help you fact-check what you read. This might help you more quickly narrow down whom you will trust.