The Planted Row: Question the source of your information

by Stan Wise
Farm Forum Editor

Late last year, I heard an interview on NPR with Deborah Lipstadt, an historian who had to defend herself and her work from a libel lawsuit by a Holocaust denier. In the course of the interview she said something that’s stuck with me ever since. She said, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if your opinion is based on a lie, then your opinion isn’t an opinion. It’s a lie.”

In other words, if the information you use to form your opinions is false, then you are believing lies, and when you state your opinion, you are repeating lies.

You might wonder why I’m bringing this up. I’m mentioning it because it’s easier than ever to come in contact with, believe, and share false information. No doubt you have heard the term “fake news” bandied about in the press these days. The reason it’s being discussed in the press is that fake news, basically false information disguised as reputable news stories, is more prevalent than ever. Websites that write these fake stories and promote them on social media reap financial rewards in the form of advertising revenue. Meanwhile, society reaps the consequences in the form of a misinformed public.

This is a result of technology and people’s changing preferences for their news media. Increasingly, more people are reading or watching their news online and on mobile devices instead of through traditional media such as newsprint or television. This is fine. This is normal. As our technology evolves, so does our society. However, it’s important to be aware of what we are giving up when we adopt the new media.

On the internet and on social media, it’s easy for fake news sources to disguise themselves as legitimate sources of journalism. It’s very hard for readers to tell the difference. Before, you had to have access to a television channel or enough money to print a newspaper to distribute fake news. Now, anyone with a smartphone can do it.

Make sure you get your news from a reputable source. A reputable news organization has a class of key players who keep the populace safe from false information — editors, the gatekeepers of facts. Editors are the people who remove information from a story if that information doesn’t come from a trustworthy source. They are the champions of the journalistic ethics. They are the champions of readers’ interests. They are the ones who make sure journalists work hard to hold those with power and money accountable.

A fake news source doesn’t bother with any of that. They make up stories they think will get the most traffic.

Who loses in this new era of widespread fake news? We all do. In a democracy, a misinformed citizenry makes poor decisions.

So what can you do to make matters better? Know and evaluate the sources of your information. Make sure your facts come from trustworthy, unbiased sources. Here in the Farm Forum, every article has a byline so you can easily identify the source of the information.

One way to determine whether a news source is trustworthy is to see if that source issues corrections when it, for whatever reason, publishes false information. In the Farm Forum, we issue corrections at the end of my column in a section called “Setting It Straight.” If we find out we have printed incorrect information, whether it is a misspelled name or a complete falsehood, it is corrected here in my column.

The next time you hear a politician vilifying the traditional media for lying, ask yourself if you have ever heard that politician issue a correction. Then ask yourself whether you believe the politician (who is trying to either gain or stay in power) or whether you believe a news organization that has built its reputation on publishing the truth.