If I browse Facebook right now I am likely to run into at least three fake news articles. Some articles are antagonistic, their only purpose is to trick the reader into spreading misinformation and others are sensationalized versions of the truth. Regardless of their motive, one thing is clear: we need to change the way we read the news. When approached with new information, the immediate reaction of many people is to believe what they see, especially if the information is presented in a professional manner. When reading and watching the news, however, it is time we counter the information we are given with a level of doubt.
Think back to the Trayvon Martin case and the way the media handled his death. What many sensationalized criminal cases have in common today is the examination of character of both victim and suspect. In many cases, whether the suspect is guilty or not, the media will dig up anything they can about the person’s life in order to alter what the general public thinks of them, even before the evidence has been brought into question. The most recent example is the shooting of Michael Brown which sparked the Ferguson protests.
Many news outlets reported that Brown had marijuana in his system when he was shot, as if that had any relevance to the case, which it did not. The only purpose for reporting such a trivial detail was to alter public opinion of Brown. In an article by The Washington Post regarding the Brown investigation it was reported that, “Residents and protesters have noted that allegations of marijuana use have been used … in an attempt to disparage the character of the shooting victim.” In addition, dozens of tweets by professional journalists and Ferguson residents circulated misinformation throughout the dilemma, “The events in Ferguson, Mo., have launched a familiar spectacle: the race to be wrong first,” notes an article by The Los Angeles Times. This practice, which should be frowned upon, is growing far more common in recent years and is the reason that we need to think about what we’re reading.
Ferguson protesters saw right through this report knowing that the articles were biased and held no connection to the shooting or any crime Brown may have committed earlier that evening. Some sensational news reports, however, are broadcasted with little to no dispute. In an article entitled “7 Things I learned as an accomplice to Mass Murder,” Talia Jane explains how her life was changed when her mother supplied an alibi to two close friends while they went on a murder spree. “Before her best friends went on a murder spree, my mother practiced and taught Wicca. The power of suggestion was right up her gullible little alley. She believed in Wicca because it indirectly allowed her to believe in herself.”
The article goes on to point out that the media took this information and twisted Jane’s mother into a monstrous figure. Yes, she was an accomplice to murder, but her religion should never have been brought into question here, especially because true Wicca is a peaceful religion whose number one rule is “An it harm none, do what thy will.” Jane was not by any means innocent. However, it’s unethical to bring an irrelevant fact, such as the practice of Wicca into the mix especially if the purpose is to completely misrepresent both the religion and the woman in question. This is something the media does all the time to gain readers and adjust public opinion to their specific agendas and it’s important that readers don’t continue to fall for it. This information doesn’t mean anything, and yet readers eat it up and create an association between the two unrelated facts that is undeserved.
Think about it this way, if I were to be wrongly accused of a crime tomorrow, the media could paint me in one of two ways. Either the headline could read: “UT Honor Student Suspected of Crime” or “Goth Girl lead Suspect in Grisly Crime” based solely on whatever part of my life they feel the need to fixate on; some details aren’t even accurate, but in a media circus that doesn’t matter. The terrifying thing about this is that it can happen to anyone of us; innocent until proven guilty unless the media gets involved. I would then be at the mercy of the strangers in society who interpret this news article, whether it depicts me in a positive light or not.
What’s most important to consider here is regardless of where the information comes from, we must always think critically about what we’re reading. In many cases, the media will attempt to create a grandiose story for the buzz, but the story is not always as fantastical as they make it appear. If a news story seems particularly outlandish, check the sources before posting it on your Facebook wall. If the story is a hot subject that everyone is dying to get their hands on, perhaps wait until the craze dies down before buying into these reports.
Often in the rush to be the first to deliver the news, things get misreported. Fewer and fewer media outlets can avoid reporting without bias, so think about what the news channel you’re watching might want you to get out of this story. If a detail of the case that is reported doesn’t seem to have any relevance to the case at large, ignore it; it’s likely inserted into the story to change your opinion on it. While sensationalism is a huge part of our media outlets today it is certainly not the goal of every journalist. The challenge is to recognize the difference between a genuine article whose goal is to inform you on current events, and the sensational article which wants to reel you in for sales purposes.
Sam Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org