Remarks delivered by Amanda J. Crawford, Assistant Professor, during the Journalism Department's annual scholarship awards ceremony on April 27, 2023.
A lie tears “a hole in the fabric of factuality.”
“Consistent lying, metaphorically speaking, pulls the ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand.”
As a writer, I love metaphors. And those two different ones, that I sort of mashed together unceremoniously there, are drawn from political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s essay “Truth and Politics.” She first published that essay about the impact of political lies in The New Yorker in 1967 -- even before our nation endured the trauma of Watergate.
I first came across these quotes about 50 years after Arendt wrote them, back in 2018 when I started researching the misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and political lies that had coalesced to launch what many commentators have dubbed the “post-truth era” of American politics. I thought Arendt’s metaphors spoke so directly to the kind of vertigo I felt then, as public discourse became increasingly polluted by outrageous falsehoods. It’s a sense of vertigo that I think that many of us continue to feel today.
I was invited to talk to you today about my research – and how this “misinformation moment” we are in, which is how I often refer to the mendacity of our times, impacts those of us who choose to pursue truth as our profession.
The calling to seek the truth – which our students and graduates know is the ultimate ethical tenet for journalists – is why I decided to be a journalist.
I was raised in rural Appalachia. My high school was just outside the Antietam Battlefield in Western Maryland. It’s the kind of place where patriotism is defined as God and Country. I grew up spending a lot of time at two places: my church and the American Legion. But I knew pretty early on that the kind of truth I wanted to seek wasn’t the kind spoken about from the pulpit and my version of patriotism didn’t entail military service.
To me, the First Amendment was the promise of America. The idea that we all have the right to the province of our conscience. We can choose our God, speak our minds, and disagree with our leaders. And the free press – the only profession specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights – is key to the very functioning of our democracy. The free press is charged with an extraordinarily important duty: to hold public officials accountable and provide the information that enables our system of government by the people.
As a child, when I decided I wanted to be a journalist, it was because I saw journalism as a noble, patriotic profession rooted in serving the public good and serving democracy. Recent scandals and some bad actors aside, I still believe this wholeheartedly.
There are many people in the public who would find this contention laughable. They accuse journalists of pushing fake news, of being biased, of having nefarious agendas. The last president even went so far as to dub journalists “the enemy of the people.”
I think there is a saying that explains what a lot of this criticism is about: truth hurts.
We live in an era in which our sources of information are splintered. Fake news, conspiracy theories, and propaganda compete alongside legitimate reporting online. And the sad reality is that many of our fellow Americans are far less interested in truth than they are about promoting their own agendas, beliefs, or political tribe. Sometimes, there are news outlets that fall into this, too.
Truth doesn’t always feel good. The truth can disrupt our sense of how the world works, it might make us question our loyalties, our preconceived notions, our sense of right and wrong. Many people want to run from this discomfort. It’s easier if everything you read, watch or listen to tells you that what already believe is right, that your team is the best, that your friends are good, and that your beliefs are moral.
You may be familiar with a psychological phenomenon which comes into play here. It’s called “confirmation bias.” People believe what reinforces their existing beliefs and dismiss what doesn’t. A related phenomenon is called “motivated reasoning.” That’s when deeply held beliefs cause people to dismiss facts and reshape reality to fit the preexisting narrative of their beliefs. This is how people can be drawn down the rabbit hole to believe outlandish ideas such as the notion that major mass shootings like Sandy Hook have been staged or even that high-ranking Democratic politicians are trafficking children to please Satan (a grand conspiracy theory known as QAnon).
This tendency to dismiss truth and engage in conspiratorial thinking isn’t new. But the modern media and political environments have changed in ways that enable people to ignore facts more easily. You can find someone supporting almost any ludicrous idea online. Quacks who promote anti-science gibberish. Politicians who make up voter fraud – but only in elections they lose. It’s easy to find your tribe – even if your tribe believes the world is flat and the moon landing was a hoax.
When you are the journalist engaged in the important work of telling the truth -- reporting facts as well as the “truth about the facts” – you can find yourself running head-on into people’s confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and ludicrous false beliefs. You can find yourself facing angry, polarized people clinging to a false reality.
Journalists need to be brave and remember the high stakes of our calling. Recently, we saw what happens when a major media organization kowtows to an audience clinging to conspiracy theories. For months, some prominent media personalities at Fox News helped to promote conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. We know, because of documents released in Dominion Voting’s lawsuit against the network, that Fox knew better: they knew from their own reporting that the conspiracy theories about the election didn’t pass the smell test and that the proof some of their guests said they had of rigged voting machines didn’t exist. But they were afraid of losing market share if they told their audiences the truth.
Journalists can never be afraid of the truth. That is our highest calling. But telling the truth requires bravery more now than ever before. It also requires us to think about the way we practice journalism and how we can do better so we serve the truth and don’t inadvertently help to make this misinformation moment worse.
So, some advice for our graduates – and a few unpopular ideas -- as you head out into the world and do the brave work of telling the truth:
Work to build trust: We not only face a crisis of truth. We also face a crisis of trust. A lot of people don’t trust journalists, and it will be up to your generation to demonstrate why you should be trusted. How can you do this? For one, you should be transparent: explain why and how you cover the news. Share your sources. Show your work. Tell the story of your journalism, honestly. This means revealing more than reporters of my generation did about the work that you do.
Be cautious about how your reporting can help misinformation or disinformation to spread. My research shows how sloppy reporting about mass shootings helped conspiracy theories to spread. Our technology allows us to publish almost at the speed of light. Truth takes longer to get at. And the internet will remember every tweet and every mistake, even if you correct it – and bad actors can take advantage of that. Here is my unpopular opinion: You might need to slow down sometimes to get it right.
Avoid repeating misinformation or disinformation and introducing it to a new audience. It might feel like you are doing the good work of the truth when you debunk a conspiracy theory or call out a political lie. Be mindful that you might have good intentions, but if that false information is fringe you might just be platforming it and helping it to spread to a whole new audience. My unpopular opinion: there will be sensational, controversial things that sometimes you just shouldn’t cover, even if it gets hits. Because it feeds the polarized world of disinformation and lies.
And finally, remember that telling the truth is your job. You are not stenographers, charged with just telling what happened. Your job is not just to talk to “both sides.” You have no obligation to report something just because someone says it or believes it or because the other side says it is so. Your primary obligation as a journalist is to seek the truth and report it.
There is a saying that I sometimes tell my students: A journalist’s job is not to interview people and report what color they say the sky is. The job of a journalist is to look out the window and report the truth.
In today’s world, there are lots of storm clouds. Looking out the window can mean seeing things that are disturbing or scary. But that is the charge.
Go forth. Open the windows. Look outside. Tell the truth. And be brave.