It is perhaps one of the great ironies of the information age that, although news and information are more accessible than ever before, it is still difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Digital technologies can be a double-edged sword: they have made our lives more convenient and more confusing. Because we all participate in the same basic information space, these ironies create an environment that challenges everyone, including individuals and institutions.
The information age has given birth to the current era of citizen journalism, which allows anyone to post anything to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a host of other platforms without editorial oversight. A big story, whether true, partly true, untrue or misinterpreted, often undergoes an initial online explosion, where it is read (or partially read), tweeted, re-tweeted, re-shared, and then quickly accepted as fact simply because it reaches a critical mass of attention. Opinions are then formed which, according to a recent Pew Research Center study about Twitter reaction to current events, often do not reflect the views of the broader public. Even reporters at respected news organizations who are trained in journalistic fundamentals – including the invaluable skill of fact checking – get pulled into what New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan calls the “maelstrom of Twitter-era news.”
Whether poor journalism or the drive to be first is to blame, the end result is often widespread misinformation that influences the minds of many, who then pass on judgments without thought. Correcting such inaccuracies and then realigning public opinion is a difficult task, and that’s why excellent reporting, where facts are vetted and put in their proper context, is vital to our society. It’s little wonder, then, that former U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941) said, “The function of the press is very high. It is almost holy.” While everyone would like to see news organizations implement practices that yield better reporting, making this a reality is another matter entirely. As Sullivan writes, given the demanding nature of the online world, those practices “can fall apart quickly in the scramble to chase a major breaking news story.”
This matter can even have a religious dimension. The way we handle information affects the way we see the world. It is Jesus Christ who said, “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Possessing correct facts and applying wise judgment is important to Christians and all believers because it allows us to know whom to trust, make better decisions and not waste time processing false information. This relationship between truth and freedom is important to Mormons. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the Church’s First Presidency, says that “never in the history of the world have we had easier access to more information – some of it true, some of it false, and much of it partially true. Consequently, never in the history of the world has it been more important to learn how to correctly discern between truth and error.” He then adds this caution: “Just because something is printed on paper, appears on the Internet, is frequently repeated, or has a powerful group of followers doesn’t make it true.”
Granted, journalists are under the constant fire of deadlines, and the nonstop digital news cycle has created a kind of never-ending deadline that puts tremendous stress on reporters. This is especially a challenge for those who report on religion because the doctrinal tenets of any faith are best understood within a broad context, and thoughtful analysis is required to understand them. Furthermore, digital technologies combined with a society’s recognition that free speech is an honored, fundamental right makes the problems of citizen journalism difficult to avoid.
But not impossible. Journalists (both trained and untrained) can do some things to ensure they are relaying reliable information, and readers can more wisely consume these reports. A practical first step is an added measure of patience on the part of both reporter and reader. Complicated stories and topics take time to analyze and can’t be adequately tackled in a 140-character, sound-bite world.
Beyond this, journalists and the public both need to be better educated about the topic at hand. Concerning the subject of Mormonism, MormonNewsroom.org seeks to do just that: it contains a wealth of information on a multitude of topics that inform reporters and the public about the faith. This includes FAQs, infographics, and news releases to answer basic questions about the Church, as well as topic pages and commentaries that provide deeper explanations of various aspects of Mormonism.
Getting the facts straight in our digital information climate is a challenge to be embraced. News organizations want to be seen as credible, and readers want to be properly informed. With due diligence, the ubiquity and convenience of digital technologies can better enable us to “know the truth” and be free of confusion and misinformation.