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Sorting Facts from Fiction

Tom Shine, Allison Campbell, and Jill Miller on stage for panel discussion
Sorting Fact from Fiction Panel with Tom Shine and Allison Campbell.

To say I’ve never been so concerned about the fate of our nation is an understatement. Journalism is one of the core principles of American democracy. It informs and educates the public while acting as a watchdog for elected officials. A free press is what separates democracies from dictatorships and authoritarian regimes around the world. This freedom is so vital that it is included in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The state of journalism is grim. In 2023, more than 21,400 media jobs were lost, the highest number since 2020, when 16,060 were cut due to papers changing from print to digital. We have lost more than 2,500 papers since 2005, many in counties that have become news deserts. These job losses, local newspaper closures, and declining readership allow the spread of misinformation, division, and polarization - not good news in a pivotal election year.

When I scheduled a panel on media literacy for late June months ago, little did I realize just how timely and crucial it would be. The panel coincidentally took place just days after my return from the National Federation of Press Women conference in St. Louis, a fortunate alignment of events. The conference’s focus on media literacy and the role of AI for professional communicators made the importance of our upcoming discussion even more real.

The panelists for our local media literacy discussion are powerhouses of local journalism. Freshly filled with new information, I was joined onstage by Tom Shine, the Director of News and Public Affairs at KMUW radio, our local NPR affiliate, and Allison Campbell, the editor-in-chief of the Sunflower, the student newspaper at Wichita State University. (Read their bios here.)

The conversation was powerful, too. While the speakers at the NFPW conference were fantastic, having more time for our local discussion allowed us to go deeper. What I learned easily rivaled what I took away from the conference.

This was such an excellent and vital conversation. I wish you all could have been there. Here’s what I learned.

Critical thinking skills are essential.

Before we can genuinely sort facts from fiction, we must train our brains to think critically. We’re not born with this ability, and we don’t develop this skill on our own beyond survival-level thinking.

Critical thinking is a learned ability that must be taught. Unfortunately, most people never learn it. Instead, many of us are taught to memorize information, color in the right bubble on standardized tests, and believe authority figures without question. Sadly, this is one of the ways we give away our power. 

It’s not all that complicated. Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate facts and information, remain objective, and make a sound decision about how to move forward.

To be a critical thinker:

  • Stay open-minded and curious rather than relying on assumptions or jumping to conclusions.

  • Ask questions and dig deep rather than accepting information at face value.

  • Keep your own biases and perceptions in check to stay as objective as possible.

  • Use your emotional intelligence to fill in the blanks and gain a more well-rounded understanding of a situation.

Critical thinking goes beyond being intelligent or analytical. It requires the ability to step outside of oneself, let go of preconceived notions, and approach problems or situations with curiosity and fairness. This is easier said than done and takes practice. Perhaps this would be a good Finishing School class.

Reliable news sources report stories that are fair and balanced.  

According to our panel, there is no such thing as unbiased news. Everyone has a bias. We can’t help it, but it has no place in journalism.

Reputable news sources, like KMUW and the Sunflower, have several colleagues edit their stories to ensure they are fair and balanced. They want to check that all sides and perspectives of the issue are given equal weight and consideration so people can draw their own conclusions.

Journalists fact-check their articles, knowing they’ll get chopped if they pass along misinformation and embarrass their employers. To be extra cautious, the people editing the stories question writers to find out how they know what they wrote is true.

Watch for misinformation and bias red flags.

Humans naturally search for, interpret, prefer, and remember information that agrees with and supports their value systems. This confirmation bias is incredibly alluring when the issues are emotionally charged or come from deeply held beliefs. It’s also what makes it hard to recognize bias in reporting.

Here are a few:

  • Pay attention to the words used to describe the situation, especially when they sound judgmental, overly emotional, or dramatic.

  • Ask yourself if the story seems fair and who or what might be missing. Is there more than one side to the story?

  • More time is spent on the reporters’ thoughts and ideas than on the facts and differing perspectives.

Headlines that stir up a lot of emotions are shocking or seem too good to be true to bait readers into clicking on them. One of the panelists said these “clickbait” stories always have a kernel of truth to them. They’re like corn dogs. There is meat in the middle, but you have to go through all the breading to get there.

Check the facts.

Before sharing any story or meme, make sure what you are spreading around is true, fair, balanced, accurate, and current.

  • Consider the source. Does the story come from media known for fair and balanced reporting?

  • Do an internet search for the headline and see if there is more than one source with the same news. Bonus points if reputable sources are covering it.

  • Go on a fact-checking mission by visiting websites like Snopes, PolitiFact, and FactCheck and searching for the headline.

AI is a tool that we need to use and understand.

AI isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to get better and more powerful, so don’t ignore it. The more you play around with AI, the easier it gets to recognize its soulless creations. Think of AI as assistive technology that can make your life easier – not a replacement for creativity.

Our panel assured us they don’t use AI for writing stories, but they do use it to transcribe recorded interviews into text, summarize large amounts of words, and take other time-saving measures.

Everyone agrees that watching AI morph in the future will be interesting. We’ll see new and better ways to use this tool and people exploiting it for their own evil purposes. Even AI has recognized the reality that it can be manipulated and needs to be regulated somehow. Court cases around intellectual property rights, like copyrights, are going to get interesting, too, in this big old can of worms we’ve only started to open.

Support local news.

Newspapers used to be big money makers through selling ads to local and national businesses. Before Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace, classified ads were cash cows for the newspaper business. Local television and radio may soon be a thing of the past, too. With all the streaming services, fewer people are tuning in.

There are important reasons to support local news. When all the news we consume is partisan or national, it’s easy to think of opponents as enemies. All the humanity of the connections we have in the community is easy to ignore when we don’t see each other.

 Local events can also have a big impact on our lives. People in areas with poor local news coverage are less likely to vote, and when they do, they vote strictly along party lines. When learning about the candidates is difficult, more people become politically disengaged.

Now, media has become more reliant on subscriptions at a time when there are so many other options for news. The papers are getting skimpier, and the price keeps going up! Don’t let that stop you! You can read the Wichita Eagle for FREE on the Wichita Library website. All you need is a library card! (Click here to get started!)

The future of journalism is changing.

There is some good news. Since so many papers have closed, many journalists are still passionate about reporting the news. Some are banding together to start an online local and specialized press. Many of these are beginning as nonprofits, which gives them more freedom to write the stories that need to be told without impacting ad sales.

We have some excellent sources in Wichita:

KMUW Radio (NPR Affiliate)

The Sunflower (WSU student newspaper)

Wichita Eagle (Newspaper)

Community Voice (Black News)

Planeta Venus (Hispanic News)

The Beacon (Community News)

The Journal (Kansas Leadership Center Civic News)

The Shout (Entertainment News)

The Active Age (+55 News)

Wichita Business Journal (Business News)

Kansas Reflector (Kansas Political News)

Journalism is in trouble, but it’s not dead yet. The importance of journalism to our society and democracy makes it worth fighting for.

One of the conference keynote speakers was Lynne M. Jackson, the great-great-granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott, who took their fight for freedom from enslavement to the Supreme Court. She said something in her talk that I’ll never forget. “To find justice, you must be willing to fight unwinnable battles.”



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