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Citadel News Service
13 Jan 2017

Navigating what is and isn't real news in the 'post-truth' world

As seen in The Post & Courier │ by Alison T. Smith, Ph.D.

We didn’t need “Pizzagate” to remind us that we have entered a new era in terms of the way that we gather and share information. The rate at which we are bombarded by news that is either false or of dubious origin is staggering.

The problem is compounded by political leaders and cultural figures who repeat and exaggerate inaccurate information to either further their own ends or make headlines. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we learn to distinguish factual journalism from the stuff of tabloids. It is equally vital that we support investigative journalism and those who do the hard work of uncovering the truth. It is with this in mind that I offer some suggestions for upholding and empowering the kind of press that is essential for the health of our democracy.

Subscribe to two or three newspapers or weekly news sources. Consider subscribing to several different sources of news in the form of daily newspapers or weekly news journals. Hard-nosed investigative journalism is only possible if journalists receive a paycheck.

If you insist on getting all of your news for free, you will get what you pay for—sensational headlines. It is important to support our local newspapers while we are still lucky enough to have some. I was dismayed to hear people declare post-election that they were no longer going to subscribe to The Post and Courier because of the editorial decision to not endorse presidential candidate “X” (fill in the blank here with any name besides Gary Johnson). I believe this to be short-sighted.

While I did not agree with The Post and Courier’s endorsement, I suspect there are members of their staff who feel the same way. There are several writers whose work I enjoy, and I want to be sure that they are able to continue to publish their columns. For example, I believe that the Lowcountry is a healthier place thanks to David Quick’s positive influence. In addition to supporting local news sources, it is also imperative that we support journalists working on national and global issues.

Try picking up a copy of The New York Times on the weekend. Although it may sound old-fashioned, there is nothing like a leisurely morning with a cup of coffee and the feel of newsprint in your hands.

Read broadly — and internationally — on the Internet. Supplement your careful reading of print media with reliable sources online. If you subscribe to a traditional print newspaper or weekly, you will probably have access to their online edition as well, but you should also consult other sources.

Make it a habit to regularly consult media with views that run counter to your own. This will discourage you from making assumptions and might inspire you to see things from a different perspective. I would also encourage you to read news from other countries to gain an international perspective. The BBC and The Guardian are good choices, and you can find additional English-language news sources from Canada and Australia. If you studied another language in high school or college, now is a great time to revive your skills. Add Excélsior, Le Monde or Die Zeit to your reading list to gain international perspectives. Once you have become informed about an issue, write about it.

Our country desperately needs fresh voices to move beyond the hype and engage with the issues. Now that we have identified the proliferation of “fake news”, it is time to take action. Give the issues you care about some deliberate thought, check your sources, and start writing. Letters to the editor and op-ed pieces are good outlets, but some may find that process too cumbersome. You could start a blog or post your writing on any number of social media outlets. It is crucially important, however, to check your facts and also to cite your sources.

I hope that these suggestions will inspire you to become a more careful reader and perhaps to go one step further and share your ideas. As a nation we rely on the information we receive from a free and independent press.

It is incumbent upon all of us to support that press and to become engaged readers in order to guarantee that the information we receive is accurate.

As citizens, it is our responsibility to ensure that our democracy is shaped by informed opinion. Seeking truth in order to reject fallacy and deliberate obfuscation of the facts is indeed an act of patriotism.

Alison T. Smith, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at The Citadel.

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