Too much (mis)information

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 27, 2013

Winston Churchill once said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Today a lie can be retweeted a million times before the truth has time to power up its smartphone.
Rowan County Early College held a “Truthiness Conference” last month to help students become wise consumers of information. The school’s leaders realized students were taking in endless streams of information without much idea about how to sift through it all and tell fact from fiction.
Adults struggle with that, too. What is the truth, who is shading it and where is the whole truth?
What is truthiness, anyway?
You can blame comedian Stephen Colbert for “truthiness.” Though technically the word has existed for a long time, he gave it a new twist on “The Colbert Report” — a twist that satirizes those who take the argumentative, anti-intellectual approach to politics.
Forget dictionaries and reference books, says Colbert in his ultra-conservative comedic persona. They’re for elitists — those eggheads.
Colbert says the nation is divided: “Not between Democrats or Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided by those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart…”
Accepting “truthiness” or something less than the truth is for those who think with their hearts, he suggests — because it feels right.

Concern about the younger generation’s ability to identify reliable sources of information has led to the creation of organizations such as the News Literacy Project based in Bethesda, Md., and the Center for News Literacy at Stoney Brook University in New York.
The groups encourage students to think like reporters, and they bring in journalists to explain to students how reporting works. Question what people tell you. Dig for details. Analyze what’s being said.
Involved citizens have an obligation to do more than passively take in information — we need to really listen, analyze and ask questions. If that puts someone on the defensive, you may be on to something.
In a recent letter to the editor, a reader urged the citizens to attend county commission meetings for themselves because she believes the Post’s coverage is slanted.
The Post endorses widespread attendance of public board meetings and the viewing of those meetings on television. (In fact, we’d like to see the school board on TV, too.)
Columns like this certainly do have an opinion or slant. That’s why it’s on the Opinion page.
I don’t agree that our news stories are slanted. But I do believe people should question us as much as they’d question any other source and judge for themselves. We are not perfect. But we take the job of journalism seriously, and we strive to serve the whole community.

So, at the risk of inviting jokes, let me tell you about the SMELL test. You’ll find this concept in a book by John H. McManus, a former journalist and communications professor. He’s the author of “Detecting Bull: How to Identify Bias and Junk Journalism in Print, Broadcast and on the World Wide Web.”
McManus recommends applying a five-part SMELL test to news articles. As you read an article or hear a story, consider these factors:
S for Source: Who is providing the information and is it in his or her best interest?
M for Motivation: Is the source being informational, or is he or she trying to persuade you or sell you something?
E for Evidence: What evidence is offered to back up what he or she claims?
L for Logic: Does the information make sense?
L for Left Out: What is left out or missing, either intentionally or unintentionally?

McManus compares today’s information landscape to the vast Sahara Desert. It’s full of mirages, he says — information that is not what it appears.
Some information might be more “truthiness” than actual fact. McManus says critical habits of mind can reduce our susceptibility to misinformation. In a democracy, he warns, the reliably informed have no greater say in the voting booth than the un- or misinformed.
Otherwise we might well deserve this bit of cynicism, also from Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
We have information at our disposal to prove him wrong — if we learn to use it wisely.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.