How can you discern fact from fabrication in the news? Most recently actor Jussie Smollett from the popular television show “Empire” made national news when he reported being attacked on the streets of Chicago. Smollett alleged that two masked assailants poured “an unknown chemical substance” on him, possibly bleach, and wrapped a rope around his neck. In a follow-up interview with police, Smollett alleged that the attackers yelled “MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. Almost a month later, investigations revealed that Smollett staged the attack. How could viewers know if it was real or not?
It is becoming necessary for news consumers to develop the skill of defining reality in the midst of all the opinions. In the absence of truth, people will speculate. As in the case with Smollett, the weeks between his allegation and the truth were filled with speculation about the attack resulting from him being openly gay, black and wanting a higher salary on the TV show. There were discrepancies in the reporting of his salary which ranged from $20,000 to over $100,000 per episode. Which salary was correct? Though that wasn’t the most significant part of the story, it shows differences in facts.
So how does John Q. Public build the skills to discern fact from opinion? We brainstormed some ideas:
- Question the source – most reporters and journalists list their email addresses. If a story sounds questionable and more speculative than factual, email the writer asking for the factual underpinnings of the story.
- Verify facts when you can. If you can contact the source directly to gain insight, do so. If you happen to know someone who is knowledgeable about the facts related to the story, contact them.
- Conduct your own research.
- Be slow to believe everything you hear and trust your common sense. When the Smollett story first hit the news, many questioned why the actor was alone on the streets of Chicago in the wee hours of the morning.
There are thousands of news sources on TV, radio, the Internet and print media. People tend to migrate toward the sources that align with their opinions, biases, and beliefs. Living in one’s prejudice shuts doors on reality and limits the broadening of one’s view of life.
Young people growing up in this environment have no idea what it’s like to trust the media. Of course some factual mistakes were made in the news reporting of yesteryear, but the errors were not done as a deliberate shading of the truth or to meet the requirements of a particular bias. In fact, when there was an error in a news story, the reporter or journalist made the correction in the next broadcast or publication! As we stated in a previous blog, the media is competitive for financial reasons. If reality attracts viewers, listeners and readers, then news is becoming opinion styled or disguised as reality.
One cure for discerning fact from fabrication is to develop the awareness to detach from what is being presented and learn to think rationally. It is important to think outside of oneself. If a story is not an editorial or other type of opinion-piece which should reflect the bias of the writer, it should be factual. Here is a formula to remember: News – Facts = Fabrication
Footnote: Since completing this entry, the charges against Smollett have been dropped by the prosecutors. Why? The facts or fabrications continue…
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