The victims of fake news or misused influence of legitimate journalists are legion, including sports luminaries like Manny Pacquiao, Rhonda Rousey and even other respected journalists like James Deakin. The most common reaction to skewed, screaming headlines is outrage, particularly for ordinary people who don’t comprehend what is going on. The tendency is to believe the lie. Whatever their agenda, those who use media and social media irresponsibly are out to harm. As the targeted audience, we have the responsibility to discern what is the true story behind the story. Unfortunately, most people don’t bother, too busy scrolling down their social media timelines for the next emotional hit, like some media junkie.
The first aspect of the story to check is the source. Who wrote, reported and / or published the story? Is it a new organization with a long history of credibility in broadcast and print? Is the author or reporter in direct contact with the subject, lifting from other sources, or rehashing an old story? The simplest thing to do is check the source and date of original publication. For example, comedian Kevin Hart was attacked online in an attempt to prevent him from hosting the Oscar awards again. The conspirators went through his more than 40,000 posts on Twitter just to find some damning homophobic message from 2008. He has since revised his opinion, but many who read the boosted tweets did not pay attention to the date.
Also, if the source is a blog or vlog or personal account, it is worthwhile checking the background of the writer. I feel safer when the person blogging is a journalist with an established news organization, and simply is expressing an opinion unrestricted by space or time. Other than that, I am weary, particularly if the material is a health or security scare or an attack against a person. I once said of a blogger that he was not a journalist and that he sometimes got his facts wrong. And I was correct. He subsequently attacked me on the sports website he wrote for, bragging about his 15,000 followers. I could have replied via this column, but that would have been akin to killing a fly with a shotgun. At any rate, the blogger in question was fired.
What did the person actually say? When Manny Pacquiao was intentionally misquoted to rile the LGBT community, the actual interview was truncated for effect. He was quoting the Bible, then said he loves his LGBT brothers and sisters and, in fact, pays for the education of many of them. But maliciously, only the first part was broadcast and quoted, making the words from a 2,000-year old book fresh words from a modern-day sports hero.
Establish the context. The date of the quote is only part of establishing the background of the story. Sometimes, people say things in jest, out of anger or impulse. Or they simply change their minds afterwards, but the original quote sticks. Security officer Richard Jewell was falsely accused of participating in the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. That made headlines around the world. But subsequent investigations cleared him of any wrongdoing. Sadly, that revelation went largely ignored, resulting in the destruction of his career and his early death.
Does it matter? Often, we react to opinions of public figures as if we were personally being defamed. Outrage has become our favorite emotion. But why? For the most part, their opinions have no direct impact on our lives. It’s as if we are saving up ammunition for battles and confrontations that never happen. If an athlete speaks out against officiating, as what sometimes happens in the NBA and PBA, then the league itself will deal with it. But as part of our day-to-day lives, these do not impair us in any way.
Implied malice. Robert Hanlon allegedly said “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” This quote, commonly known as Hanlon’s razor, is a device to eliminate unlikely explanations for human behavior. In sports, we most often assume a referee or technical official is crooked when, more likely, they are simply in error, or have a blind spot. There really are referees who frequently call a particular violation more than others, but that doesn’t make them evil, or place them on someone else’s payroll.
Determine the agenda. This is the most difficult part of discernment. There are, admittedly, media practitioners who are concurrently guns for hire or hatchet men. But how do you gauge if a writer or publisher has malicious intent? First, look at the language they use. For example, do they name-call (instead of “president” they use “dictator”)? Do they insert past alleged but unrelated offenses, or mention friends and family members who have been cast in a bad light? Does the writing have a pessimistic tone? Does it imply offenses without providing facts? Is it tone antagonistic? Does it make generalizations? A news report does not do these things as par for the course. It attacks actions, not persons. It draws conclusions from facts, not assumptions or implications. You see a logical progression, not outrageous leaps of the imagination.
It sounds like a lot of work just to read the news. But it is our moral obligation to make informed opinions, not hasty judgments, about others, many of whom we don’t even know personally.