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Discerning truth

Three professors from three disciplines with different worldviews all say that being informed by news that only affirms one’s worldview is dangerous

A girl poses for a photo while holding a book.
Abigail Harper says with so much information presented to herself in various forms of media, she forgets to slow down and think sometimes.

Growing up my dad used to ask me, “What do you know, and how do you know it?” to help me slow down and think. When I had questions for him, his answer was usually a question of his own, “What assumptions are you making?” and we would pick apart the built-in biases behind my question as part of the journey to find the answer.

With so much information presented to myself and everyone all the time in various forms of media, I sometimes forget to slow down and think. When I do, I feel happier and more grounded.

I talked to three BYU–Hawaii professors about ways to increase thoughtfulness in our media-driven world. They shared insights on how to effectively navigate the news, how to distinguish between true and false information and how to stay informed but not overwhelmed by the world. This information helped me be more self-reflective of my media consumption and be aware of my own biases.

Phillip McArthur, Mason Allred and Troy Smith said people can be better consumers of the news and media by being more aware of one’s own biases and looking at multiple sources with various angles. However, they took different approaches on how to reach that end goal.

A guy holding a burning newspaper.
Fake news is a way to discredit what people don’t want to believe in, says Mason Allred, assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Letters who teaches communications.

Separating real news from fake

News is what people want to tell their significant other, roommate or friend when they get home like, “Guess what I learned today,” said Troy Smith, a professor in the Faculty of Business & Government who teaches political science.

Fake news is a way to discredit what people don’t want to believe in, said Mason Allred, assistant professor in the Faculty of Arts & Letters who teaches communications.

News is going to be influenced by people’s biases and worldviews, explained Smith, which can become problematic when all of their news sources have the same worldview and are lacking diversity. Then when diversity, or something disagreeable comes up for someone, a person can easily label it as “fake news,” and then they can move on without engaging with the facts, said Allred.

“Don’t get your news through social media,” Allred advised. “The format isn’t set up to be very accurate, well thought out, or deep.” He explained social media isn’t created to inform, rather it’s created to make someone keep scrolling. Algorithmically, it will send a person information designed to set them off emotionally to keep them coming back for more, Allred said. McArthur, a professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts who teaches anthropology and history, said he noticed something similar.

People do not yet know the full implications of living in a media-saturated world, said McArthur. They are not only overwhelmed with information, he said, but also the way it is presented in a high-pitched immediacy of crisis. Many local occurrences are blown out of proportion and presented in a life-or-death way, he explained. “I want myself and my students to be able to say, ‘There is more going on here than is being represented in this sound bite,’” he said. People need to stop being lazy and do the work of finding the nuances and complexities of issues because media is packaged without much detail, he said.

One reason why media is presented in this way stems from the 1970s and 1980s, said Allred. News stations had to compete with sports and sit-coms for viewership, so they started to become more entertainment-based rather than just giving the facts, he said. That shift has only been exacerbated by social media, Allred shared.

Propaganda is the idea that if someone says something enough times, people will believe it, explained Smith. As an example, Smith brought up Germany’s propaganda in World War II and the allies countering it with their own propaganda techniques. After the war, those who learned about how to do propaganda went into advertising and politics, he explained. “The point was no longer to inform people, but to change people,” Smith said.

More than just entertainment and propaganda, McArthur said he thinks news has taken on a religious zeal as well. “It has taken on a certain kind of dogmatism and emotionalism that is involved in a lot of religious display,” he said. With entertainment, people enjoy it and then go home, he explained, but religion is something they are committed to all the time.

Allred said emotions are often manipulated by the media, but they can be used in ways that aren’t manipulative as well. He said media can use emotional tactics to appeal to people’s humanity. Appealing to empathy and understanding is a great way to see the world through another person's eyes, he said. Allred explained it only becomes a problem when the emotion distorts the facts.

Smith noted 50 percent of Americans who consume mainstream media have never heard of The Twitter Files. The other half of Americans believe it to be the most important story of the last five years, Smith said. After Elon Musk bought Twitter, he opened it up to well-reputed independent journalists, Smith explained, and they reported some disturbing findings related to news censorship on social media platforms.

Smith said that universities now lean towards teaching truth as subjective. The journalists who are supposed to be telling people the truth were likely taught that there isn’t truth or that people cannot know the truth, he said.

McArthur explained he is less concerned about the dichotomy of true and false but of analyzing how people use the idea of truth to legitimate their positions. Instead of hyperfocusing on finding “truth” that confirms people’s biases, he said it can be more effective to find what is useful to unpack the complexity at hand. “Like all good knowledge, we never completely arrive [at an endpoint], and we should be humble as our knowledge and understanding emerges and unfolds,” he said while encouraging dialogue and discourse.

A subway with people sitting and standing while reading newspapers.
News is going to be influenced by people’s biases and worldviews, explains Troy Smith, a professor in the Faculty of Business & Government who teaches political science.

Tips to navigate media

Smith gave me a sheet of tips to help navigate the media including:

1) Beware of confirmation bias. Be aware of your own biases.

2) Pay attention to the level of detail; more detail is an indicator of truth.

3) The smell test, or asking yourself, does this make sense?

4) Know the sources.

5) Find multiple sources.

6) Pay attention to issues long-term, see trends and learn motives.

7) Know your history. It doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.

8) Know your political systems.

9) Beware tactics to distort.

10) Learn logic to be able to pick out logical fallacies.

Some of the tactics media can use to distort information are glittering generalities, card stacking and band wagoning, said Allred. “These are not techniques of liberals or conservatives,” he said. “They’re both. Anyone trying to be persuasive tends to use some form of these.”

Everyone makes mistakes, said Smith, so be forgiving of the reporters who own up to it and improve. Allred said there are sources that can show people the best reputable news outlets. AllSides is an American company that assesses the political bias of media outlets, its website says. Tools like this can help people be aware of the bias behind the media.

Smith had a different view, advising people to trust individual reporters, but have a healthy skepticism for establishments. Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger and Glenn Greenwald are three reporters who Smith said have been pushed out of the established media but are reporters he trusts.