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Journalism, opinion, and the Web

Does the online world of social media and citizen journalism make it easier to intentionally parade opinion as fact?
Jim Willis Modified: July 28, 2014 at 7:48 pm •  Published: July 28, 2014

I used to wonder -- still do in fact -- if many people are still interested in facts when it comes to arguments. But now my question is an even larger one: Are people still interested in credible sources who deliver information, or just familiar ones?

Or do people require information to be sourced at all? If statements just appear on the screen and agree with your own ideas, isn't that self-evident truth?

There is a link to digital media and citizen journalism here, so bear with me a moment and we'll get there.

Expertise in peril?

My wife Anne showed me an interesting op-ed piece yesterday called, "The Death of Expertise," written by Tom Nichols, a professor of national security for the U.S. Naval War College. In part, here is what he says:

"I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise": a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all."

It is important to note that an editor's note on this piece clearly states, "The views expressed are entirely his own." Nichols' credentials are also provided so readers can evaluate his thoughts in light of them.

The Shadow World

Years ago journailst/philosopher Walter Lippmann warned journalists of the fierce responsibility they have in presenting a representation of reality, or what I call a "shadow world." You need to get it right, Lippmann warned, because people react to those pictures, and they react in the real world.

As history has taught us, we even go to war over those representations, whether they are true or not.

A digital convenience

One obvious connection with the digital media is that it is so very easy to put assertions, accusations, and ideologies on the Web and have them masquerade as fact-based reporting. And, in case it has escaped anyone's attention, that is increasingly the content appearing regularly on your Facebook page, especially if you have any politically passionate friends.

I often tell my university students that, to some degree, each of us has become a journalist today, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. But it also easier to parade opinion as fact.

It seems to me there are at least two levels to this kind of charade:

1. Individuals post their own opinions and assume they will be read as fact. (ie. "Barry Obama is intentionally trying to destroy America.")

2. Individuals post "stories" from online publications purporting to be newspapers or news sites. Those publications then publish sourceless stories laden with overt opinion.

A couple examples

Here is an example of that, from the July 28 home page of The Conservative Tribune:

"The Obama administration has manufactured a border crisis in order to further their agenda of passing amnesty for illegals and effectively increasing the Democratic voter block, but there was one thing they didn’t count on: state governments using their Tenth Amendment powers to take matters into their own hands."

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