Finding the “Truth” in Our Mangled Media

by Kassandra Lamb

The “truth” is in critical condition these days, gasping for air under layers of partisan biases, sensationalism, and plain old lying. Even the best of news sources may pick and choose which details they tell us to make the stories more exciting or controversial.

Venn chart

Words describing “Degrees of Uncertainty” (by Lbeaumont, CC-BY-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons)

Because controversy sells!

But it isn’t good for our individual mental health to constantly be stirred up, nor is it good for our country. We are extremely divided right now, at a time in our history when we actually should have the least to argue about.

Most of us have the same goals for our country: good jobs, a strong economy, good education for our children and grandchildren, stop terrorism, etc. The fighting is over how we will achieve those goals, and in my opinion that fighting has become more personal and vicious, and less productive, than it has ever been before.

Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now and get back to how to find the truth buried in the piles of information rubble. There are five things we should do to accomplish this:

(Note: This is Part Two in a three-part series on critical thinking; See Part One on natural human biases in thinking. Coming next time, taking action based on critical thinking.)

First, it is important to separate facts from opinions. Our society and the media have gotten blurrier regarding that distinction in recent times.

girl with newspaper

This ain’t your mother’s news! (public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve seen or heard a “news” story that really wasn’t news at all, it was all speculation about something—about what it meant and what might happen in the future.

Second, consider the source of the information. Does that source tend to get the facts straight? What are the particular biases of that source? What “spin” do they tend to put on things?

Try not to get all your info from sources that share your own biases. Tune into the other guys now and then and see what they have to say.

And if someone is giving an “expert” opinion, take a hard look at their level of expertise. A lot of the controversies in my field of psychology were started by general-practitioner type psychologists or experts in other specialties expressing their opinions about some area that they knew little or nothing about (but thought they understood).

Definition of an expert: “ex” is an unknown quantity; a “spurt” is a drip of water under pressure… so an “expert” is an unknown drip under pressure.

Third, ask yourself how logical the information is. This is where you need to be most aware of that confirmation bias I talked about in Part One. It’s easy to assume something is logical because it jives with your own opinion.

But logic is very methodical. It has little or nothing to do with opinion. Does Piece of Info A plus Piece of Info B really add up to Conclusion C? Does it truly make sense? Are there other plausible explanations?

Fourth, what is the evidence and how solid is it? Has this issue been truly studied by professionals in that field? What have they found? What’s the story behind that 30-second sound bite on the evening news?

I know, for a fact, that the news media sometimes presents evidence as more solid than it is. How can I say that is a fact? Because I’ve heard or seen such stories in the news concerning topics that fall within my own area of expertise, where I knew the evidence they were citing was far more speculative than they implied.

And this spreading of tentative evidence as more solid than it is can have disastrous consequences.

Let me give you an example. The news media reported a few years back that it was safe for pregnant women to drink one glass of wine per day. Sometimes they specified red wine; sometimes, not.

This was based on ONE study of rats who were given red wine daily while pregnant and ONE AREA of their babies’ brains was later examined. The usual damage to this area that alcohol was known to cause was not there. But the entire brain was NOT studied. The researchers tentatively concluded that one of the components of red wine (that is not in white wine or any other form of alcohol) MAY counteract the negative effects of the alcohol on that part of the brain.

woman pouring wine

photo by Fabio Ingrosso CC-BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The media got their hands on this one study and went wild, telling women and their doctors that red wine was now okay. Yeah, if you’re a pregnant rat!

Since that initial study, additional research has been done, with conflicting results. There is still no consensus on the subject and all healthcare professional organizations (such as the American Academy of Pediatrics) are still saying: “No level of alcohol has been proved safe during pregnancy. The safest bet is to avoid alcohol entirely.”

And yet most women now believe that it is okay to have a glass of wine a day while pregnant, and the really scary part is that some doctors and midwives are now telling their patients this. When I was teaching human development, I even had a pregnant student get up and walk out of class because I dared to cite the research and contradict what her doctor had told her (he had told her that a glass of wine a day was good for her baby).

Which brings us to…

Fifth, Check the facts! Google is wonderful, but again consider the source.

When I sought to check the current facts regarding the wine and pregnancy issue, Google was my first stop. But then I looked at who was publishing which articles. I’m going to believe the articles published by the Mayo Clinic, NIH and Harvard Medical School over a blog post by a woman who was pregnant three times, drank wine the whole time, and has three children “who are fine.”

Another option is to visit one of the fact-checking websites out there. Two of the more popular ones are Snopes and FactCheck.Org.

Stay tuned! Next time, we’ll look at the tricky process of deciding on what actions to take, based on our critical thinking.

Your thoughts on all this? Can you think of other ways we can check ourselves to make sure we are thinking critically?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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10 thoughts on “Finding the “Truth” in Our Mangled Media

  1. Kirsten Weiss

    My favorite “tell” is the “if true…” statement I so often hear preceding stories about the latest scandal. “If true, [insert apocalyptic disaster here].”

    But what if it isn’t true?

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Exactly, Kirsten! Fine, report on the information and state that its validity has not yet been confirmed. And stop there, until it’s been confirmed!

      Reply
  2. K.B. Owen

    Important things to keep in mind! Are they teaching logical fallacies in school anymore? I remember having to learn them: post hoc ergo propter hoc, ad hominem, and so on. We reviewed them when I taught college writing classes, too. Always good to know the kind of fallacies in logic that circulate.

    Reply
  3. Kassandra Lamb Post author

    My son learned all that, Kathy, but only because he took philosophy classes in college. I don’t think they covered it in any of his high school classes.

    And the problem I ran into when trying to teach critical thinking in my psychology classes was that even college students aren’t yet sophisticated enough thinkers (i.e., not far enough along in the natural progression of cognitive development) to get the concepts. They had to do critical thinking papers and almost all of them skimmed the surface.

    Reply
    1. K.B. Owen

      Actually, they can, but you have to work with them step by step. It’s a learned skill, like anything else. In my class, we went over the different types and talked about examples, then they would have to bring in real-life examples of the different logical fallacies they encountered (from newspapers and political speeches, mostly, though commercials were good, too), and we would go over those. Then I would have them deliberately commit that fallacy in an argument (without labeling what type it was), then they would peer review each other, identify the fallacy and what the better argument would be. Their papers got much better after that.

      Reply
      1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

        Sadly, I couldn’t spend that much time on it, and I was applying it to analyzing scientific research. All they seemed to get was that the sample sizes were often too small. Even after we had thoroughly dissected a bad study in class. *sigh*

        Ironically this discussion is making me miss teaching.

        Reply
  4. Vinnie Hansen

    First some good news–logical fallacies are still being taught, at least at Watsonville High School.

    I think our news media is so vitally important and currently so under attack that I hate to pile on. However, my personal pet peeve is weather, weather, weather filling huge chunks of the evening news with nary a mention of climate change. Or, when the station mentions climate change, it digs up some yahoo to take the counter position, creating a false equivalency–here’s one scientist sounding the alarm and here’s another questioning the reality, as if climate change isn’t about as settled as science gets.

    The media does this with other topics as well. They interview one person with this position and one person with a counter position instead of doing any serious investigative reporting to unearth the facts. It’s lazy, lazy “journalism.”

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      Glad to hear logic is still being taught in high schools, Vinnie. And yes, I find all the weather on national news annoying too. If it’s not a hurricane, a true blizzard or a tornado, then I don’t need to know about it. I can go to the weather channel for everything else, or my local news.

      And that point-counterpoint approach is so misleading. It not only implies an equal balance between both sides (which may or may not actually have equal amounts of evidence behind them) but often opinions that have no evidence behind them at all get voiced, just so the news station can say they’re being balanced.

      But I hear you about the media being under attack. I don’t want them to go away, I just want them to truly do their jobs and report the facts, not opinion and speculation.

      Reply
  5. Piper Bayard

    Good tips!

    For me, if a source cites “unnamed officials,” “sources close to officials,” “former officials who are close to current officials,” “sources close to officials familiar with the case,” etc., ALL of which I have seen in both the NYT and Washington Post, to name only two, the information can safely be considered either propaganda or gossip. Look for actual quotes and the names of people who said them, when they said it, where they said it, and to whom they were speaking.

    It’s tempting to believe such articles that cite to those nebulous officials, particularly when they are in mainstream media, and especially when they are showing us our own opinions in print. Doesn’t change the fact that without a quote and a name of a real person that can be contacted for confirmation, the reporter is simply asking us to believe the information because they do. That doesn’t make it fact.

    As for Snopes, they do a great job with fact and fiction of urban myths, but when it comes to political topics, the founders openly admit they are devout progressives, and their tendency to find all things aligned with the progressive position to be “fact” reflects that bias. I don’t trust them anymore for anything more than whether or not there really is a Nigerian Prince that needs my money.

    Thank you for your article.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb Post author

      What? That Nigerian prince isn’t going to send me anything? 😉

      Good points, Piper. That’s my immediate thought when I here about some “official” — WHICH ONE? And I prefer an actual clip of them saying it in their own words. Then I’ll believe they said it.

      Reply

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