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).


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.


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.



The writing blues

This post is dedicated to all the writers out there.

I have been published quite a bit in newspapers, I write for my own book review website, and I’ve contributed to other websites and book review publications here and there. But some other outlets have eluded me. I’ve written two articles for our church magazines (one for the Ensign and one for the children’s Friend) that the magazines have accepted and paid me for, but which have yet to see actual publication. Over the course of probably 5 to 10 years, I frequently tried to pitch story ideas to magazines but never got one to bite (except for once, and that was at the very beginning of the journey and I didn’t realize what had just happened, so I somehow dropped the ball and never followed through: perhaps I’m being punished karma-wise for that…). So I’ve essentially stuck to newspapers and their online counterparts more recently.

And then there’s the book project. I started working on a nonfiction book about mothering when my now-almost-16-year-old was about 3. Over the course of a year, I would get an idea and rush to my computer in the same hurried manner as one who is nauseated would rush to a toilet. The book is a series of vignettes that tie together my observations of how my little girl saw the world and how I remember being as a child myself, and then connecting my realization that I could understand finally what my mother had always related to me about her feelings and experiences raising me. For me, raising this amazing preschooler and her infant sister, it was all revelatory. I hoped that perhaps the ways I phrased these insights and the positive message would resonate with other women, whether they were mothers or grandmothers.

Well, I’m not the type of person to write strictly for the pleasure of writing. I mean, I do love the process, but I’m a goal-oriented, type-A personality gal. I don’t just dive into the creative process and emerge refreshed and satisfied with my work; I feel it must have some sort of audience (Along the lines of the truism if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?, one could say I think, if a writer puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and those words never see human eyes, did they ever exist?).  Someone must read my words.

So. Getting the words to an audience is the hard part. Writing is generally fun, occasionally frustrating, to be sure, but mostly a pleasant creative burst and satisfying work. Even editing is fun for me. But putting them in a forum where those sentences can be appreciated by other humans is a most unsatisfying business. It entails poring over websites, Writer’s Market tomes, and so on trying to find publishers or agents that will even consider my genre of writing. Then a perfect query letter that captures the essence of what I’ve tried to say in my book has to be crafted and sent to carefully vetted editors and agents. It entails a good number of trips to the post office. (I was on a first-name basis with some of the postal service workers in the office close to my house in Alabama while I was sending out packets in the push for publication of this book.)

Over the course of a year, I wrote the body of my grand oeuvre. Then I edited and reworked and re-edited. I changed the title. I overhauled. I went to a writers conference and had the manuscript looked at by a well-known agent. I reworked. I submitted countless query letters; I read books and articles and posts giving tips on how to craft the perfect query. In short, I was consumed by trying to get published.

There were a few bright spots in which a couple of agents requested more material after a query, but overall, I collected an astonishing number of rejection letters. They stuffed a file folder full. It was depressing, frustrating work into which I poured my whole soul and countless hours and stamps and got pretty much nowhere.

After those few years of work, I finally decided to self-publish. This was nearly 10 years ago, before the ebook, but at a time when you could easily self-publish using print on demand. But I had seen some “self-published” books that had gone through this quick and cheap process and I was not impressed with the result. They looked cheap and unprofessional, and if I was going to do this, I planned to do it right. So I decided to do it the “old-fashioned” way. I hired a book cover designer to create my cover; I investigated printers and finally selected one; I chose paper and materials. I edited and re-edited and did the layout myself. I ended up with a pretty nice-looking product. I chose to have 2000 copies printed because it wasn’t much different in cost to 1000.

I then researched how to market. I did the best I could to find outlets for my book and tried to snag a distributor, but that was just as difficult as finding a publisher! So I carried my book to some stores that were local and independent and were willing to consign the books or buy them outright. I did book signings in Birmingham and the Gulf Coast at cute indie stores. I set up a website and sent out tons of emails and put my book on Amazon.

I think I sold 200 copies. Now, I have boxes of books sitting in my garage in a neat stack in a far corner. I wonder if I should torch them. Or just recycle them.  Because honestly, when I go back and read my writing, I hate it. It sounds trite and goofy. It sounds like the cheesy, earnest books that somehow did get published that I generally disparage. Some people really did enjoy my book and my writing in general. But not nearly enough to empty all those boxes. I’d love to make room in my garage and clear those books out, but it just seems like I’d be throwing away money. Those boxes represent a few years’ worth of my life, of toil and sweat and (copious) tears, of unpaid work and investment of my husband’s hard-earned money. So I’ve kept them through one move to a different house in the same town and then a move all the way across the country. There they sit.

I’ve moved on. That project is behind me. I suppose I learned a lot from it. I’ve been able to help some friends who write and hope to get published as well; I’ve learned how the system works through my own trial and error and know how to help them. I am probably the harshest critic of my own work, as well, but from what I read, that’s not uncommon for any writer. I remember reading somewhere when J.K. Rowling published one of her Harry Potter books that she commented something like, “Well, it’s done, and it’s been sent to my editor, but I’m not really satisfied with it. I just know I’m not editing it anymore.” We as writers get sick of the same passage and still may not like it, but there comes a point we’re just done.

I’ve worked on a few other projects; I wrote a children’s book I thought was pretty clever and went through the whole process of query letters and rejections yet again (talk about soul-sucking and draining and depressing) with no result. My 9-year-old loves the story, though. I thought perhaps that was supposed to be my niche. Apparently not. I tried writing a young adult novel, and dedicated a month and about 70 pages to it and then took a break when my dad died. I never resumed because I just thought it was crap.

I’ve since decided my real talent is in writing nonfiction. I love to research and interview people. So I wrote a couple of articles for a large online news organization and have tried to do more research to make it a book. But that’s stalled because I haven’t found more people to interview.

And so goes the life of a frustrated writer. I absolutely must write. I must create. The urge to set ideas down on paper (or screen), to distill, to organize, to make something out of raw materials, is all-consuming. It just is who I am. I feel empty when I don’t write. The keyboard is an extension of my fingers and allows me to set in stone what are just swirling ideas in my consciousness. I don’t just enjoy writing; it is who I am. I’ve managed to write the whole time I’ve been a mother, despite interruptions and crazy schedules and the important needs of my family, because I wouldn’t feel whole if I didn’t.

So the process satisfies that part of my self, my personality. But the publishing is still something that eludes me. I desperately want to traditionally publish a real book. It is my end-all, be-all, pie-in-the-sky dream and goal. I’m almost 42 years old and I’m still stretching and striving toward it, shedding tears of frustration and wanting to hit walls with my fist (or head…) because it hasn’t happened yet. But I keep trying.

Here’s to goals. And dreams. And a toast to all those who are still striving for their own, whatever they may be. You writers, my fellow travelers, this tear’s for you.