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An informed future

Harwood seniors preparing to graduate and move on to the next stage of your life, take this bit of advice from someone who has made a career as a writer and journalist: Become journalists. No, not necessarily as a career choice; be warned that the pay is terrible. But in the 21st-century information age, everyone needs to become adept at basic journalistic skills.

Here is the way journalism used to work way back in the day when it was a learned and structured profession. News, opinion and other information were delivered by professionally trained reporters, writers and editors who (for the most part) observed well-established standards and codes of conduct. Journalists and the institutions that employed them did the hard legwork – following leads, recording events, cultivating reliable sources, backtracking and double-checking, and (again, for the most part) making every effort to be sure that any story that was published or aired was meaningful, fact-based and thoroughly vetted.

That was the job of journalists, and they took professional pride in getting their stories right. Fake news or wrongly reported stories were so unusual that they were apt to become legendary in the annals of journalism. As when a nation was duped into thinking aliens were invading the planet in the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” Or when the Chicago Daily Tribune famously printed the 1948 banner headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (Check your history books, Highlanders; Truman won the presidency that year.)

Now the internet has opened the spillway to a flood of half-truths, biased reporting, infotainment, insinuation, conspiracy theories and outright lies, all masquerading as truth and mixing in with genuine truths. Sorting through reams of raw material to find the stories of fact and importance was once a journalist’s job. Now, everyday consumers of information need to do it. That means that anyone and everyone who can manipulate a smartphone needs now to assume an old-school journalistic role – to employ the methodology that has long been the basic MO of professional journalists.

SKEPTICISM

For starters, a healthy dose of skepticism is foundational to good journalism. That is especially critical in an age where, essentially for free, anyone with just a modicum of computer skills can create a web page or social-media post that bears all the markings of authority. Crafty purveyors of fake news can be ingenious in creating phony web addresses and graphic trappings that carry the appearance of legitimacy.

Some, like Russia, do so with nefarious intent; others, like conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, do it for profit; still others do it just for fun, to see how many people they can fool. Phony stories “go viral,” to use the terminology of the modern information age, to present an illusion of truth built from the whole cloth of widespread repetition. If everyone is saying it, it must be true. The misinformation isn’t necessarily outright falsehood or inaccuracy; many media outlets, even reputable ones, colorize hard facts for emotional, ideological, or political effect.

When journalists encounter news items or reports with even a hint of questionable credibility, they do two things: They check the source, and they corroborate. They go to a second or third or fourth source to verify a report before going on air or into publication. And they learn to weigh the credibility of various sources and cultivate the most reliable ones, knowing that, over time, some sources prove to be more accurate than others. Web and social-media surfers need to follow suit.

CHECK THE SOURCE

In addition, web and social-media surfers need to weigh what might appear to be hard evidence with a similarly healthy dose of journalistic skepticism. Photos, videos and quotes can be easily doctored, mislabeled or taken out of context. Once again, the basic methodology of professional journalism comes into play: Check the source and corroborate.

Journalistic skills have traditionally been taught in postgraduate journalism schools and on-the-job training. That’s not good enough anymore. Kids need to learn this stuff, and basic journalistic skills need to be taught in high school or even in elementary school. Riding on what Al Gore famously called the information superhighway a couple of decades ago, everyone, not just trained, professional journalists, needs to be adept at sorting what’s fact from what’s not.

The concept of an essentially unregulated internet is laudable in principle. More information should make you more informed. But more misinformation can also make you more misinformed.

As 21st-century news consumers, Highlanders, you must be able to identify truth in a truth-challenged miasma of internet blabber. Learn to separate reliable sources from purveyors of deliberate falsehood and twisters of fact. Learn to make a habit of double-checking and triple-checking any even remotely dubious claim or report. In short, learn to become journalists.

Oliver lives in Warren.

The Valley Reporter - serving Vermont's Mad River Valley since 1971