Warning: Reading can be hazardous to your sanity

Once upon a time there were lies, damned lies, and statistics. The modern version of the saying could just as easily be ‘lies, damned lies, and fake news’.  The result is that it’s no longer possible to know who – or what – to believe. So, what do we do?

The fog of fake news has become so disturbingly dense that we can no longer have any certainty that anything is true.

When only one newspaper publisher was saying ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’ we were still able to distinguish fact from fiction, but we have now arrived at a point where so much might be fiction that we just can’t tell.

The first problem is the death of quality journalism. Once there was a distinction between news, analysis, and comment. News told the story; analysis explained impartially what it meant; and comment was the offering of an opinion about it. The journalist writing it would report the facts, regardless of what their opinion might be; there was other space for that.

Today the loss of that distinction is disturbing for two reasons; firstly, news is presented through the prism of the reporter’s (or the proprietor’s) perception, and secondly, the public no longer understands the news/analysis/comment distinction.

Social media has compounded the problem. Its audiences read what’s posted, and, if it coincides with their own belief, no matter how nonsensical or untrue it might be, they believe of disbelieve it.  Everyone has become a spin doctor.

Who’s to blame?
Who do we blame? Well, people driving their own agendas, for a start, seeking to bring something about because they can make a personal or political gain from it.

Then, in a world which has become so polarised into black and white on every issue, we’re plunged into the world of ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’. There is no longer any middle ground; no possibility that the reality of any given situation might be neither their view nor their opponent’s, but something somewhere in the middle. Politicians are often the worst offenders, pelting metaphorical rotten fruit at opponents and demanding resignations for perceived injustices. Hardly ever do we hear calls for people to apologies and mend their ways before getting on with the job they’re supposed to be doing. Demands for resignation are so common that they no longer mean much of anything.

And the next group to blame are the social media surfers. Posting what they like, anonymously, with no fear of any recrimination. And a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, like the mob who threw bricks through the window of a medical professional because they didn’t know the difference between ‘paediatrician’ and ‘paedophile’. That was in the days before social media. Had it been later, the poor woman might have been strung up by her thumbs from the nearest lamppost.

And finally, it’s the omnipresence of news; where technology has made it possible for us to have 24-hours news broadcasts. That overlooks the fact that there aren’t enough people to cover enough news stories in anything but the most perfunctory manner to fill so much airtime. Therefore, breaking news become a rehash of what was said 15 minutes, and an hour ago, or something someone made up from something that someone might have heard from a conversation at a bus stop, simply to fill the information vacuum.

What can we do?
We live in dangerous times. When the leader of the free world and the leader of Russia meet and we have no clear understanding of what’s been said because one party appears unsure of what he said, and the other isn’t saying anything at all, there is little hope for the rest of us, bobbing along behind them.

The best hope we have to protect our sanity is to polarise our reading. Read nothing at all, or read everything. Trust none of it to be 100% accurate, and form an opinion based on a course steered through the middle of the morass.

The road to President Nixon’s impeachment was paved with careful steps taken by two journalists who went to enormous lengths to verify the accuracy of what they wrote. That was good journalism. It’s unlikely that the same story could be told today.