When a friend tells you a story do you believe it? The answer is usually yes. But why do you believe it? More than likely, it’s because you trust them. When we trust someone we unconsciously assume that what they are telling us is the truth. Even though you know people can lie or stretch the truth, when you trust someone your instinct is to believe them.
But, trust is a funny thing. As flawed individuals we are known to trust the wrong people. Similarly, because we believe something to be true doesn’t mean that it is. The United States Constitution grants us the right to a free press. What the constitution doesn’t grant us the right to is the truth.
Thomas Jefferson believed the role of a free press was to provide accountability to government by ensuring the voice of the people be heard. He explained,
“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”
Every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.
Today, the press is more widespread than the founding fathers could have ever imagined. We live in a culture of 24/7 news coverage. We live in a culture where media empires produce much of what is seen on television. We live in a culture where social media allows everyone to author news related content. John Oliver even boldly stated, “there is no longer a consensus on what a fact is.” But even with all of this, our right to a free press is still intact. The core idea of a free press remains; the voice of the people will be heard. Now, whether or not the voice of the people is listened to and understood is a different story.
Jefferson’s second point in his statement argues that everyone should be capable of reading “the papers”. The problem we have is not the changing models of how news is accessed but is in our collective inability to assess the accuracy and evaluate the information we receive.
When you were in high school you probably read Romeo and Juliet. Many Shakespeare classics have been adapted in order to provide students with a handy side by side comparison between the original language and modern English. This is important because it allows students to more easily digest what they are reading in order to properly evaluate the text. At every step along the way your teacher would ask the class questions. What are the themes? What is the author saying about humanity? What are you connecting to? What seems false? What does the narrator believe to be true?
In your discussion of the play the goal was not to agree but to learn. To share interpretations and come to a common understanding together.
So how does this relate to our consumption of news and media today?
Marc Prensky discusses the difference between what he terms digital natives and digital immigrants in his essay originally published in On the Horizon. He states, “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet.” While digital natives may have an easier time with “reading” our modern news forms, those digital immigrants struggle. Even us digital natives aren’t taught how to properly assess our modern news sources. Without being able to assess the information we are given what is the point of “reading” it in the first place?
Think of how we consume media. There is no side by side comparison to digest the language of topics unfamiliar to us. We are not taught to ask those same questions posed to us by our English teachers. That kind of questioning has been reserved for high school and college classrooms. In order to truly develop a more open discussion around our media we must learn to ask these questions outside of academia.
Like in a novel, the protagonist is placing his or her own world view on what is being said. When you read a story every detail is important to the world view of that protagonist. If it wasn’t, the author wouldn’t bother writing it in. The same goes for media. Everything you hear is important in some way to the creators, writers, or commentators. And thus, we cannot fully trust it. We must ask questions. What is the author saying? Why is the author saying this? What is this saying about humanity? What does the author believe to be true?
We are too comfortable and rather enjoy hearing our own opinions repeated back to us. In today’s Facebook driven media surge, it is effortless to filter out the news you just don’t want to hear. In order to have a true conversation we must confront other viewpoints. We must confront other truths.
Those who disagree with you believe their thoughts are based in fact. We must understand that like a protagonist, we all have filters that distorts our views of events. What does the author believe to be true? The sweet spot for media consumption is in recognizing not only our own filters but the filters of others.
We must question everything. Even things that you believe to be true. Question even your most trusted sources of information. Evaluate your sources. What are their filters? What are they saying about humanity? What is the author’s point?What does the author believe to be true? Understand your own filters. How does your background and your beliefs effect the way you see the world? When we ask these questions that is when the conversation starts.
And, it is an essential conversation. A healthy media diet helps you avoid being in a comfortable bubble. Because it is through a common and shared understanding of what we believe to be true that we can have productive debates.