A recent PBS NewsHour included a report about “how to separate fact from fiction” as middle and high school students learn about news literacy. An admirable program, especially in this internet age when skills of critical thinking and source verification seem in short supply, as aptly illustrated by a joke circulating online: “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that it’s difficult to determine whether or not they are genuine.” — Abraham Lincoln.
While California Commons columns are clearly commentary, care in calling attention to what’s opinion rather than news is often not obvious and more than occasionally omitted by others. Difficulty in determining what to believe is further complicated when one realizes that a well-told simple lie is much more powerful than the complicated truth.
Politicians in particular pollute public perceptions as demonstrated by Arizona Senator Jon Kyl saying about Planned Parenthood – “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.” Since the facts proved otherwise, his staff sought spin by seeking to explain that the remark by the senator “was not intended to be a factual statement.” Sure it was, until disclosed as untrue and ridiculed as such.
Political campaigns distort truth with such regularity that it takes a particularly egregious example to even elicit comment. Locally, Leilani Clark reported in The North Bay Bohemian upon how the fear fallout factored into the 2010 second district supervisor campaign between Pamela Torliatt and David Rabbitt with anti-immigrant mailers being distributed on his behalf which cited a story created about an event that was not even covered by reporters. “The Political Brain – The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” by Drew Westen demonstrates why it’s not surprising that tactic worked since its message about a controversial issue was framed for highly-charged emotional effect and well-timed in the campaign cycle.
As we are about to begin 2012 with important decisions ahead for us all, it is important to remember that news literacy is something worth learning by everyone.