Check your facts

Stop the spread of the fake news that undermines our democracy

Nothing vexes a newspaper reporter more than seeing fake news eaten up by the public. It’s especially grating when that kind of garbage is taken seriously by friends or, worse yet, family members.

Back in the day, say 14 years ago when I got my first professional reporting gig, email was the method of choice for those spreading such misinformation. I remember my grandfather forwarding messages containing conspiracy theories. Now, because of the ubiquity of social media, junk news has a far greater reach.

I shudder to think of what Grandpa would post if he used Facebook. That’s because, today, propaganda is neatly packaged for folks who have no experience or interest in checking whether what they are reading—or sharing—is factually accurate. They fall for memes with pithy captions and short “stories” with clickbait-y headlines.

The most disconcerting part of the proliferation of fake news is that its audience is allowing those who manufacture it to distract them from the real issues facing the poor and middle class. It’s manipulation. We saw it in its worst form during the lead-up to the presidential election, as Russia helped spread spurious anti-Clinton propaganda to undermine the democratic process.

I’ve spent a lot of time biting my tongue over the years. I’ve also spent a fair share of it attempting to call attention to the truth, whether dispelling the myth of the welfare queen or the false claim that autism is linked to vaccines. It used to be easy. I’d simply send a link to contradictory citations from reputable institutions or professional fact-checkers, such as Snopes or Politifact. Not these days. Many people don’t want the truth, so they now claim those outlets are biased.

Welcome to a time, dear readers, when half the nation has no regard for facts.

What’s most frightening is that many also show no aversion to the fascist rhetoric coming from the president-elect. Donald Trump has made numerous dictatorial pronouncements, and his latest—that protected speech in the form of burning the American flag should result in “the loss of citizenship or a year in jail!”—is dangerous and, again, a distraction from things like his plans to dismantle Medicare, gut the Affordable Care Act and conduct mass deportations of undocumented immigrants.

It’s enough to make this journalist want to throw up her hands.

And now for the good news in the newspaper world. The New York Times, a pillar of journalistic excellence and frequent target of the thin-skinned future POTUS, reported this week that the company has seen a huge spike in readership (more than 100,000 new subscriptions) since Nov. 8.

Here, in the North State, props go out to Chico State student Gabriel Sandoval, who was recently named a recipient of the Lt. Robert Merton Rawlins Merit Award and its accompanying $3,000 scholarship. Sandoval previously earned a stipend from ProPublica, a national investigative reporting nonprofit. He spent last summer interning at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and he’s been with CN&R this semester, doing everything from Streetalk to news stories, including his excellent recent piece on the lack of transparency in the naming of Zingg Recital Hall. Chico is lucky to have him, if only temporarily.