By Norris Burkes, July 17, 2020
If you’ve read my columns this month, you’ll be expecting my third of four July Freedom columns. However, you aren’t likely expecting the topic of Freedom of the Press from a spirituality columnist.
These days, Freedom of the Press feels more like a free-for-all. Anyone with a twitter account and smartphone can claim they’ve uncovered the “real facts” — a phrase as redundant as “burning fire.”
Perhaps you’ve even wondered, “How do I know that Chaplain Norris is telling the truth?”
It’s a question that was asked of me 15 years ago by the editor of my small biweekly newspaper in Elk Grove, Calif.
He called to clarify a discrepancy he saw in my column about a premature baby.
“You say ’he’ in one paragraph and ’she’ in another. Which is it?”
“It doesn’t matter. Say whatever you like,” I said. As a chaplain, I’d interchanged the pronoun to protect the privacy of the family.
A long exhale informed me he was about to tell me exactly what he thought.
“If you’re going to change the facts in any way,” he cautioned, “then you need to disclose your intentions.” He was clear that he wouldn’t tolerate any irregularities in his paper.
This journalistic experience from 2005 may have you wondering how one finds a trustworthy news source in 2020. Below, I have paraphrased some helpful suggestions from Michael Lewis’ article “Fake News? 8 Ways to Determine If a News Story Is Reliable.
1. What are the writer’s credentials? A good journalist goes to journalism school or some equivalent and finds employment by a trusted news outlet. (In my case, I have a BA in Journalism, an MFA in Writing, and am currently enrolled in a master’s program in journalism.)
2. Is the story reported by only once source? The source you read may be the first to report a story, but it shouldn’t be the only one. When it comes to a straight news story, I find that CNN and FOX should sound nearly alike.
3. Read past the headlines. Fun fact – editors write headlines, not reporters. Often, the negative emails I get come from folks who’ve interpreted my column based solely on the headline.
4. Use fact checkers to confirm content on social media. “Google Scholar” will take you right to the source, but easier sites include www.snopes.com, Fact Checker, PolitiFact, and FactCheck. None of these are without some bias. My journalism instructors always required two substantiating sources and good notes that back up my quotes.
5. Is it fact or opinion? You shouldn’t detect an opinion in a hard news story, but opinion pieces should still be supported by facts. While my columns are factual, you should consider most to be inspirational opinion.
6. How old is the information? A video posted to Twitter last week was Dr. Fauci saying masks are a waste of time. This was expired advice, but it was portrayed to be valid. When I Google information, I often use the “tool” tab that allows me to sort by date.
7. Avoid the extreme. Truth is found in the middle. If you tune your ears to the far right by listening to “Infowars” or you are a “Patribotics” kinda person, then you’ve likely stopped reading me by now. Hopefully, most of you are unfamiliar with either of these conspiracy theory sites.
These extreme sources are easily identified by their overuse of the term “Lying Press.” Labeling the press as fake or liars doesn’t make it so. Hitler did the same thing when he popularized the phrase ”’lügenpresse” to attack the media unsupportive of the Nazi Party.
I take personal offense at the term. I know many journalists. Most are quiet, deliberate people who keep their nose to the grindstone in search of the facts. Their standards are high in their use of each word and their terms are precise. No one among us is unbiased, but I can attest that most journalists I know are factual.
And last, I’ll put my chaplain hat back on to tell you this:
It’s rare that I will label something as a lie or will call someone a liar. A liar isn’t someone just expressing different opinions, experiences or biases.
A liar is someone who is being intentionally misleading for personal gain. If they don’t meet that criteria, then I would prefer to grant them grace.
But, hey, that’s only this chaplain’s opinion.