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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

No news is good news

I wasn’t surprised the other day to read the results of a survey conducted by a mental health organization alleging that those who immerse themselves in the news of the day—which we might agree is hard to avoid, self-report heightened anxiety and stress. I have to say that I find the ubiquitous presence of political news disconcerting and unwelcome, especially in forums that heretofore expressed no such agenda and in which we have the reasonable right to expect freedom from the din of disagreement.

Having spent many years in media I understand the objective—controversy builds audience, and audience governs profit. I don’t have a quarrel with those that engage in the practice because I have the ability to choose what I watch, read and hear. But increasingly I find that there is a subtle intrusion of politicization in even the most benign of forums. An article popped up the other day in a science forum stating that the top ten climate change deniers in Canada were largely under the age of 13. I’d submit that regardless of your own views on the subject at hand there are many things wrong with this article.

Chief among them is my expectation that media which represents itself as a source of objective information should not report on a subject which it has not validated—especially on a subject so contested. I attempted to corroborate the facts—by following the cited sources and hit one dead end after another. I have no idea whether there is truth to the assertions made in the article but let me be clear—I regard this as something quite apart from fake news. Indeed the ‘facts’ as presented may be fake or they may be true but absent some way for the reader to determine. Worse, the substance of the article showed up serially in several other online publications over the next few days with lurid headlines—all referencing the same original article. By lending its credibility to the article in question the original publication undoubtedly persuaded some readers to take as fact that which is still unproven. The real harm is that if what the article purports is true this is worth bringing to people’s attention. If a contrivance, it does tremendous damage to a vital subject.

Some years ago, when the web was still young, a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine showed a picture of a dog sitting at a computer with the caption: “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” Precisely the point. The immense power of dissemination afforded us by 24/7 information on virtually any subject is the blessing and curse of our age. It offers us instant access to global events that shape public opinion but all too often we have no way of discerning the true author—even at times from what we may have thought to be reliable sources.

On occasion I visit a site that hosts hundreds of threaded discussions on a dizzying array of subjects—many banal—some arcane, and a handful I actually find worth reading. I learned early on, however, that because this medium of exchange gives equal authority to every contributor, it is my responsibility to sort out what is worthy of consideration and what is Fido’s handiwork. At a guess the overwhelming majority of what I come across might as well have been composed by a twelve-year old. Sometimes it is obvious but given a virtual soapbox those older and putatively wiser can and do betray their chronological age with rants that are juvenile at best.

What’s the harm? It is not in my opinion that such freedom exists—nor is it my purpose to suggest –as some would- that everything is fake news. Rather it is to observe that news, information, opinion, and facts are not interchangeable. Merely because some statement or representation agrees with our own perspective does not make it indisputable fact. Regardless of the author, it is our responsibility to meet what we see, hear and read with a healthy sense of caution. My assumption when I read or hear anything is that it is opinion regardless of the guise in which it appears. Unless or until I can satisfy myself by reason and with coroboration that something is fact and even then, can understand the author’s agenda I do not give it weight.

There is an old joke among engineers. Standards they say are wonderful things, and it is great that there are so many to choose from. If we are in search of the indisputable, we might add that there are many truths to choose from.

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