News media, social media and facts in the time of coronavirus

I’m going to share my take on information/misinformation/freedom of speech and press as a journalist. This is just my take, with my opinions uniquely my own, created by my whole set of personal circumstances but heavily informed by my training and long years of editing/writing experience in the news field (this includes me having to teach and train and work with younger and less experienced writers who were still learning to really appropriately acquire information through research and interviews and then correctly interpret and analyze it and then synthesize it for readers in a way that is clear, informative/understandable to most readers, and accurate).

First, I am generally unlikely to watch a YouTube video that is popular and going around Facebook but that has already been marked as problematic by what I consider to be trusted sources. Almost all the time, the people who created/are the “specialists” in the videos are just one person. They are not drawing on the expertise of multiple experts (the more experts who have studied a particular issue that can weigh in on the topic with generally similar advice or information, the better; that’s science. Science is coming up with hypotheses, testing those through rigorous experiments/studies, and then publishing results and having those peer-reviewed. These videos with a single so-called “expert” do not have that weight of science to back them up.

Another problem that comes up with these videos is that the “experts” have already been shown to be extremists with no evidence to back up their claims or their past claims have been debunked time and time again by scholars in the field who do have the weight of science behind them. No, I’m not going to watch a video made by an extreme anti-vaxxer. I do not agree with those who are anti-vaccination in general and who think that children should not be vaccinated for standard diseases that have in the past wiped out millions and millions. The science does not support anti-vaxxers, and I will not waste time watching a video made by one of them.

Last little point: If I already can see I’m very unlikely to be interested in the videos, I’m not going to click and thereby contribute to these people’s paydays (yes, this is just one reason it’s not “going to hurt anything” if you check some things out that you may initially already be a bit skeptical about).

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To those who are saying their freedom of speech is being taken away/violated when these videos are removed from certain platforms, I say: Freedom of speech means the government cannot infringe on what you say. Even that, however, has some limitations: not all speech is protected, such as threats, child pornography, plagiarism and defamation. Private individuals and entities may, however, choose to limit your speech. Facebook and YouTube can do what they please in limiting what we share or post. That doesn’t mean that either won’t face consequences for limiting too much, such as if enough of us customers raise a ruckus about it and it makes a difference to their bottom line; it also doesn’t mean the government won’t look into some of these entities’ practices and establish some laws/rules about how these entities must move forward.

But for the moment, if FB or YouTube is removing a video time after time, those entities have reasons for doing so, and those are outlined under their terms and conditions. Facebook, for example, after being investigated by the government (various times about various concerns), has supposedly set out to do better by its users in terms of what information it allows to be disseminated quickly on its platform. It’s set up fact checks to pop up in response to certain popular videos or articles that keep getting shared that have been debunked thoroughly by reputable sources. It’s also reserved the right to remove some. It’s theoretically trying to at least provide some real news so that FB users who hop on quickly to look at their feeds don’t see something shared and hop off FB without at least having a chance to see the “other side” or the facts. I welcome seeing this kind of give-and-take, so at least some of the information that’s been vetted by professionals is quickly available. I also do try to do due diligence myself when I see something that just seems a bit fishy by searching Google for some related information, ideally multiple news articles from trusted media.

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News media are an important part of our democratic republic and are protected right after free speech, and they do perform a vital role in our country. We need to be able to trust that someone is looking into the facts. (That’s another note for another day, but let’s just say for now the “mainstream media” are still the best source we have to look to for the “truthiest” facts. 😉 )

Social media is pretty dangerous when it comes to “facts” because everyone is on the same level. Anyone can say anything on social media. It’s not backed by science, it’s not the opinion of more than one person, it’s not vetted by anyone trained in anything (let’s just say the “average user” here). And any comment, anything you say, will be out there in seconds. Social media, in this case, are the opposite of news media: any news story takes time. It takes time for a trained journalist to track down the facts, to research, to interview experts. It takes time to put the story together. It takes training to know how to sift through that information gained through research and find what’s at the heart of it, the facts/truth as well as they can be found at that time. It takes a good eye and ear and experience that becomes almost a sixth sense (an earned one) of knowing what’s truth and what’s hooey or even just half-truth.

That being said, you have every right to watch any video you want, wherever it is on the scale of facts or expert insight or science. You have every right to demand that a platform not take down what you want it to keep up. You have a right to gather information any way you see fit. This is such a fascinating beauty of our democracy: you can do what you want most of the time, whether it’s great for you and others or is ill-advised, and anywhere on a spectrum of truth/falsehood. You are very welcome to research any topic you want more information about, whether it starts on Facebook with someone linking to an article or YouTube video, or you go to pretty much anywhere on the internet. You are free to do so in our free country! Go USA!

I may at times watch some videos or read some articles or links to blogs because I think they bring up some important points that maybe we haven’t considered or that haven’t been explored enough in the media yet, and I know a lot of my friends have been watching various videos now for that very reason; I support you as you have mentioned this. There may be some considerations we need to think about that just haven’t been discussed enough in “mainstream media.” And I will draw my own conclusions from what I read/watch according to my own life experience and journalism training. My opinions will be similar to others’ and be something plenty of others disagree with. I’m pretty much moderate-to-conservative politically and socially, and a lot of what I conclude will likely align with my views on that kind of scale. Sometimes not.

The novel coronavirus is sometimes exacerbating our political and social views and exposing how many people just don’t trust the media anymore, which I consider pretty sad, in part because I know that most journalists are still doing the best they can to deliver news in the way it’s supposed to be delivered, and in part because television cable channels have distorted what “the media” look like (the endless hours of very wide spans of opinions and heated arguments on cable news have, in my opinion, sullied the important profession of news delivery, making many people in general just have a sour taste in their mouths when they think “news”). And the most important reason I’m sad about that lack of trust is precisely because our great free country needs a functioning media more than it ever has, and ironically, those who are most vocal about the Bill of Rights and other amendments tend to forget that the press is in that set of amendments for vital reasons.

I do get it, though. Our political parties and leaders have become divided by a huge chasm, and we the people are getting sick of it. Most of us want to see our politicians do what we voted them in to do, to work together, to hammer out solutions to problems, to enact laws, that will benefit all of us in some way because they have been crafted by consensus, collaboration, compromise, and even (gasp!) selflessness. And our media have to report on what’s happening. That’s what’s happening, folks. And in a time that’s uncertain and even the experts tend to be sharing information that comes from a lot of different angles, with plenty of differing conclusions and even statistics, we’re going to turn to information that just makes the most sense to us.

Days and weeks matter in this time of COVID-19. A lot can change in understanding of the virus, in reactions and actions, in policies, in the science, because it’s so new, and in science, more time and more data equals better and more accurate conclusions (and consensus with peer review). The media is reporting on all that, too.

In short, we’re confused, we’re exhausted, we’re strung out, we’re frustrated. We sometimes don’t know exactly whom to trust. Eventually, things will change in this time of novel coronavirus. But I hope that our leaders, the media, and we the people will learn from this experience, because all of us can do better, in either a small degree or larger degree (yes, I’m looking at you especially, politicians). We can be a little smarter about what we share and what we say when we share it. Some healthy skepticism is good, and even some healthy trust is good.

 

 

Full life

lifeandlims View All →

I’m a book reviewer, editor, and writer with four daughters and tons of projects always keeping me hopping. I blog at Life and Lims and run the book review site Rated Reads.

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