It used to be that wherever good ole boys gathered, the time to leave was when they began quoting law to each other, as a fight was certain to commence. Today, we have the Google machine on our smartphones, so you’d think we wouldn’t have such altercations.
Yet, here we are amidst a plethora of false rumors, gossip and misleading use of facts. How’d we get here? Here’s my short take.
Most of us grew up remembering facts being checked “ante hoc” or before publication by a source. We trusted what we read. But that wasn’t always the case.
The first U.S. newspaper, Publick Occurrences: Both Foreign and Domestick, published on Sept. 25, 1690, was shuttered the same day by British colonial authorities. Other newspapers quickly began springing up thereafter. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1734 trial of John Peter Zenger for seditious libel that the free-press tradition began, and it wasn’t until the First Amendment was adopted in 1791 that “freedom of the press” was guaranteed, disallowing government control over the facts we read.
While this created an environment for a free press to develop, it didn’t automatically happen.
Technological developments in the 1800s were needed. Steamships, railroads and telegraphs allowed more news to be gathered faster, but it was our education systems that taught many to read, as well as Richard Hoe’s late 1800s development of the high-speed rotary printing press that brought it together, giving us a model of inexpensive newspapers with large readerships and supported mainly by advertising.
That is what propelled newspapers from a small, upper-class readership to a mass media quickly.
And that allowed a new breed of editors to set standards and fact check. Many were hard-headed reformers who openly sided with the common man, opposed slavery and backed expansion of the frontier. They combined idealism with national pride, developed an affinity for facts and their papers taught masses of immigrants the American way of life.
In the mid-1950s, television gave personality to our news. Edward R. Murrow, Douglas Edwards and Walter Cronkite became well known. Not that they always got it right, but we believed they would never purposefully lead us astray.
Then, personal computers (1980s) and the internet (1990s) were invented and, suddenly, almost anyone could publish anything at little or no additional cost. While suspicion, conspiracies and rumors had previously been largely held in check by the editors of our mass media, that no longer was true.
This made “post hoc,” or “after publishing” fact checking a required skill for astute readers, although many have not attained it. “I read it somewhere,” or “I read it on the internet” citations of proof are still enough for many; however, we must return to the “caveat emptor” mindset of letting the buyer (reader) beware.
This resulted in fact-checking websites, developed to verify “factual information.”
And yet, they’re not always right. One study found that fact-checkers PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker overwhelmingly agree on their evaluations of claims. Others found differences in the questions asked and, thus, the answers offered limiting “usefulness of factchecking for citizens trying to decide which version of disputed realities to believe.”
Add that to the fact that some fact-checkers are criticized for their political bias, some for their interpretation of questions and some even for their rating systems. Yes, the process is human, so it’s fallible.
The solution? Use multiple reputable sites, but just don’t believe something outrageous is true just because it’s published. You know that.
I think of this today because a classmate at Charleston High School has COVID-19 and is right now attached to a ventilator at Charleston Area Medical Center. She did not take the vaccine because of fake news she read and believed from the internet.
Only 61.3% of us are fully vaccinated and only 28.6% are fully vaccinated with a booster.
So, believe reputable sources and fact-check for yourself with rudimentary fact-checking techniques.
Above all, take the vaccine.