Facts Alone Won’t Destroy Fake News
At work one day, I received a call from a retired doctor who was concerned that their grandchildren were hooked on television and sugary drinks. It seemed that the kids’ parents often leaned on junk food and iPhones as a means to keep the children quiet. But neither parent would listen to the potential hazards of reinforcing bad habits for kids — not even when the warnings were issued by the caller, a medical professional. “You were a doctor ages ago!” the parents would respond, laughing off the advice.
Desperate for research to support their argument, the doctor turned to me for assistance. “Can you help me find information that has evidence to prove that drinking sweetened juice and watching TV all day isn’t healthy?”
This isn’t an altogether unusual request. I’ve been a medical librarian in higher education for two years. I came into the profession because I was interested in helping people critically evaluate information. My hope is for them to think about information sources and how they are (and are not) influenced. So when this doctor called me, I told them about credible consumer health resources. Other resources, like a full text medical database, were also available, showing randomized controlled trials or other reviews of scientific literature demonstrating the effects from soda or screen time in children.
But what I really wanted to say was, “I think your daughter just wants you to shut up.”
I appreciate a doctor’s desire to find evidence-based information to demonstrate their point — after all, it’s hard to know the “right” thing to do with the amount of health information overload out there. But it isn’t a stretch to assume that this person’s daughter and son-in-law are probably aware excessive sugar and screen time aren’t exactly the healthiest thing for their kids; they’re probably just trying to make do and resign themselves to the consequences.
Because the truth is, in this age of “fake news,” facts aren’t necessarily the answer. The news is embedded within a broad political spectrum, and acknowledging the slants from the messages we receive is more powerful than grasping for facts.
The rise of “fake news” entered the mainstream in the lead up to the 2016 election, amplified by a proliferation of outright false articles disseminated on Facebook and a president who refused to accept unflattering stories as anything other than make-believe. To combat this trend, American Libraries, the flagship magazine of the American Library Association, published “Fighting Fake News: How Libraries Can Lead the Way on Media Literacy” to demonstrate the library’s role in teaching people how to find credible information. The organization discusses how libraries’ core values make them natural allies to help people of all ages find accurate information, use reliable sources, and become critical news consumers.
As a librarian, I applauded this effort — but something didn’t sit well with me.
The reality is that the media is biased; it is funded by advertisers and run by businessmen. Businesses have interests, the media has interests. News outlets rely on readers to click on headlines and viewers to tune into broadcasts at all hours of the day just to stay afloat. The entire media industry is chasing after the scraps of ad dollars left behind by Facebook and Google. This creates perverse incentives for the types of stories that get covered — and those that don’t. For consumers, this means fewer resources are being diverted to long-form, investigative stories that unearth corruption and inequality, or stories that impact marginalized groups. This is where clickbait comes from. Conversations lose nuance and are skewed for the sake of survival.
It’s also no secret that news publications and television networks are politicized (some more overtly than others). This impacts the types of stories that make the front page or the voices given the spotlight in news segments. Facts are often used to push a political agenda. Sometimes the media spews blatant lies that can be refuted by facts. However, most of the time, biases are subtle: the stories networks choose to share, the reporters they hire, the way articles are framed — all say something about the organization’s beliefs and mission. Librarians can educate the public about how to evaluate news sources that report outright lies. But evaluating finessed facts requires a critical eye, a knowledge of systemic bias, and insight into the business of making the news. I’m sure many people around the globe remember the news on loop showing the planes striking down the Twin Towers on 9/11. Yet, we don’t see nearly as much about the bloodshed of Muslims in Palestine or Yemen — bloodshed in which the United States is complicit. The news is not neutral — nothing is neutral.
The retired doctor who called for my help meant well. I suspect that their daughter wasn’t going to be convinced to offer less screen time and less sugar to her children. Because, well, the doctor was asking the wrong questions.
Sometimes we need to dig deeper to see what drives behavior. I understand a grandparent wanting what’s best for their grandchildren. But sometimes we focus on the Band-Aid more than that cause of harm. And a lot of the time, the cause holds a lot of pain.
Maybe their daughter has a demanding job and needs time away from her kids. Maybe her husband doesn’t support the family financially or emotionally. Maybe they both just want a break from the daily grind.
When we dig, we can get to the root of the issue. Before jumping to conclusions we need to ask meaningful questions with empathy and take a step back to discover patterns that build up to what we perceive as a problem. Let’s say this doctor’s grandkids were only given fruit and given books instead of screens. Has this “solution” addressed the root of the issue? Have the parents found ways to make space away from their kids?
Details matter. Going to the library and vetting resources are positively wonderful. I love when a student or faculty member comes to me to find reliable sources. But I like it even more when they want to understand why something is reliable. And I like it the most when they challenge what is commonly viewed as reliable by unpacking its invisible biases.
But before fighting alternative facts with facts, let’s take a look at biases, identity, class, race, gender, sexuality, religion — all of it. Let’s think about how emotional interests and ego precede us. And most importantly, let’s try to see when it’s worth it to keep on fighting and when it’s time to draw the line.