Your Advocate: an editor's blog

Provisional truth can be confusing

In Your Advocate: an editor's blog

Chris Cobler

By Chris Cobler
April 13, 2017 at 7:39 a.m.
Updated April 13, 2017 at 5:06 p.m.

When journalists report on deadline, they come as close to the truth as they can with the facts they have at the time.

That can be frustrating to readers who see the story change in subsequent days, weeks or months as new facts emerge. A news literacy course called "Making Sense of the News" refers to this as provisional truth. News consumers should consider a legitimate journalist's story as the best version of the truth that is obtainable at that time.

Now more than ever, readers also have to be able to identify the different types of evidence presented in stories and recognize their reliability. Facts presented in a news story generally range on the spectrum from direct to indirect evidence, the course notes.

"Before you take any action, you should look at all the evidence in the story and say do I know enough to say one way or the other, or should I wait for journalists to figure things out? And in the meantime, keep monitoring how the story develops," the course instructor says.

The age of fake news makes this much more challenging for news consumers. We now have to wade through intentionally deceiving stories posted on Facebook and recognize how they are different from legitimate news stories that might contain provisional truth.

To those who want to promote partisan propaganda, this represents a huge opportunity to distort reality. For example, after I wrote my last post about news literacy, I had a Victoria man claim, based on his web research, that Congressman Trey Gowdy was having Vince Foster's body exhumed to further investigate Hillary Clinton's ties to his death.

Hard-core political junkies will recall that Foster was a Clinton aide who committed suicide in July 1993. His death is often mentioned as part of a conspiracy theory about Clinton associates turning up dead. Never mind that multiple investigations ruled Foster's death was a suicide. 

Fact-checking sites and have debunked this conspiracy theory. In the two sites' analyses of the fake news, they go into specific and substantiated detail about why this reboot of an old conspiracy theory is completely bogus.

When I pointed this out to the Victoria man, he completely shrugged off the facts and said the bigger concern is when legitimate news sources like the New York Times and CNN purposefully lie and mislead people. Such misdirection is common when people are confronted about their posts of fake news. I asked the reader to share a specific link of a New York Times or CNN story he considers to be fake news.

Instead of doing that, he shared other fake news sites regarding the Foster conspiracy theory. He also brought up an unrelated political story as evidence of news not being properly covered by the mainstream media. Another reader jumped in to attack Snopes and Politifact's credibility, even though both have been widely analyzed and found to be excellent sources of reliable information.

Both the left and right are generating fake news to push their agendas. This is maddening for those of us who still look to legitimate journalism to help us sort out the news of the day. You can spend all day going down rabbit holes of Facebook links to fake news.

Not everyone has the time to take the news literacy course "Making Sense of the News." Even if you don't, please take some time to see whether the website you're being led to has an "about us" section that talks about its principles and its adherence to the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics.

If you don't find this, you're more than likely at a partisan or fake-news site that shouldn't be trusted. You can find plenty of facts to support your opposition to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. You don't need to look for conspiracy theories to support your political position.

Don't confuse a legitimate news organization's reporting of provisional truth with a fake news site's deliberate efforts to deceive you.



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