Jim Patterson: The next sentence you read is a lie
President Donald Trump today ordered limited military strikes aimed at crippling North Korea’s strategic nuclear capabilities.
To reiterate the headline: Don’t head for the bomb shelters just yet; the sentence you just read is a lie. I made it up, right off the top of my head. As I write these words — the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 21 — President Trump has ordered no such strike, and, even though the day may come when such a statement becomes true, today is not that day.
So, why would I open a column with a bald-faced lie, particularly after I made it a point only last week to promise you you’d read the truth in these pages? Well, I did it to show you just how easily it can be done.
Imagine, if you will, I’d posted that truthless sentence to Facebook and that I’d couched it in some really official looking — but equally bogus — news logo. Suppose I’d then carried on with the lie, adding layer upon deceitful layer to my fabrication, sprinkling in kernels of truth here and there to bolster the illusion of legitimacy.
If I ever did that (which I never would) I hope most people would peg my deception for precisely what it was and soundly denounce me for my reckless disregard of the facts.
I certainly hope no one would propagate my lie by giving it a “like” or a “share.”
But the sad fact is, many would. They’d lap it up like homemade ice cream, then ladle it into bowls and serve it up for all their online friends to enjoy, too.
Eventually, some fact-checking individual or organization would show up to expose my lie, but even after that happened, it would continue to be served and consumed as though it had proceeded from the lips of the Almighty.
Satirist and essayist Jonathan Swift once wrote: “… as the vilest writer has his readers, so the greatest liar has his believers; and it often happens, that if a lie be believ’d only for an hour, it has done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it …”
And those words, written more than 300 years ago, capture both the essence of — and the danger behind — the recent epidemic we call fake news.
It’s difficult to say precisely why or how the false gets around so much more quickly than the true. The internet helps, as does a 24-hour news cycle that values speed far more that accuracy. Misinformation is also probably helped along by our natural inclination toward confirmation bias: We, as a species, tend to give more credence to statements that support the positions we already hold, and the purveyors of fake news — which I define as deliberate and calculated false reporting — count on that tendency and exploit it to alarmingly effective results.
And yet … I still believe most people are fundamentally honest and have no desire to read, believe or spread falsehoods.
So, in that belief, I offer the following suggestions I use to help ferret out the fake news stories from the real ones.
- Beware of sensational headlines. I’ll admit, we journalist try to hook you with the headline. If a headline is cleverly worded, takes an original turn on a common phrase or poses an interesting question, readers are much more likely to venture on to the article beyond, and yes, we writers want you to read our stuff. But, when a headline is needlessly inflammatory, when it plays to the emotions rather than the intellect, when it flat out tells the readers what or how they should think, it becomes a definite red flag.
- Look for rampant grammatical errors. While even the most credible, respected news sources around will, occasionally, make errors, those errors will be few and far between. And, while it’s true that liars can also be fine writers, if you’re reading something that appears to have been penned by a third-grade English student or generated by an online translation program, there’s a better-than-average chance it’s not to be believed.
- Look for leading language. What I mean by that is, be aware of instances in which the writer attempts to persuade you to buy into some ideology or another, and be cautious when the piece plays to your emotions. There’s no room for that sort of thing in a news story. Legitimate news stories present facts — hopefully, in a readable and, if appropriate, entertaining way — but facts nonetheless. Whenever a news article seeks to persuade you of something or presumes to draw a conclusion, it stops being a news article and becomes an opinion piece.
- Fact check. On the national stage, if a news story is true, it will be reported by more than one outlet, and all the reports will essentially agree on the facts. Also, take note if the assertions made in the article are attributed to a credentialed, competent individual or organization or simply to “reports” or “unnamed sources.” Or, better yet, if these “facts” are introduced with the clause, “We have learned …” or “unnamed sources say …” The truth will almost always be verifiable, so if you read an article that includes no named sources and no direct quotes, and you can’t find a similar story anywhere else, there’s a good chance what you’re reading is pure fiction.
It’s a pity anyone should have to figure out which articles are true and which are false. I remember a time when you could turn on the television set and be fairly confident that the trust you were placing in guys like Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner was well-founded. But those days, I fear, are over.
There are agendas out there, and the people pushing those agendas have no problem using lies to carry them forward.
It’s sad, and it’s wrong.
But unlike my opening sentence, it’s true.
Jim Patterson is editor of the Craig Press. Contact him at 970-875-1790 or jpatterson@CraigDailyPress.com.