Many years ago I was driving down the highway listening to my favorite station: NPR. It was a segment about how maple trees in New England were exploding at unprecedented rates because they had not been tapped. Pressure mounted in the trees, and maple tree farmers were doing all they could to tap the trees, even though maple syrup sales were at an all-time low due to the low-carb diet fad. Native Americans previously tapped the trees often to prevent the explosions. Robert Siegel interviewed maple tree farmers and gave statistics on how many injuries and deaths there had been due to the exploding trees. In the background were the sounds of footsteps hiking through snow, tree tapping, and a couple of distant explosions.
I arrived at my destination before the end of the story, but for years I thought about exploding maple trees whenever we made pancakes and put out the maple syrup.
One day the story popped into my head andI told my husband about it. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he laughed.
“No, it’s true!” I exclaimed. “I heard it on NPR!”
“Shannon, that doesn’t happen. Maple trees don’t explode.”
Determined to prove him wrong and to show how much I (a Southerner) knew about maple trees in New England, I ran to the computer and asked Google. To my utter embarrassment, the story that came up was “April Fool’s: New England Suffers Maple Woes: NPR.”
“What? April Fool’s Day?”
Stephen laughed and laughed, and eventually I did, too. I played the story for him, “See?” I asked. “Doesn’t that sound real?”
I admit this embarrassing story to illustrate the amount of trust we put into our news sources. One thing the months (and even years) leading up to the election has clarified is that there are a LOT of fake news stories out there. They pop up on social media and they appear in some more extreme media outlets. The most difficult stories to spot are the ones that contain some truth or appear in sources that are a mixture of true and fake stories. It is a new age of propaganda that taps into a mood and exploits that mood for the sake of an agenda. It’s been around forever, but it is increasing the divide in America.
Conversations I’ve attempted over the past year have sometimes left me baffled because it feels like we have no common culture anymore, no common storyline. This is an illusion of course; we are all inhabiting the same planet, we are just listening to different, often opposing, voices. Major media outlets have been under scrutiny as well, criticized for being too far left or too far right. But should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?
I’ve been teaching my middle schooler about media, since he now researches his papers online and cites his sources. “How do I know what is a good source?” he asks me.
I explain that first of all, if it sounds too good to be true, it might be false. I tell him he can look for the same story in other well-known news sources, and if he finds it in more than one or two places, it is more likely to be true. I’ve given him well-known sources: big newspapers that have a long history, National Geographic for his science papers, our local paper for community stories, and the Student News show he watches at school.
Another way to assess credibility in stories is to read the tone. Is it level-headed or does it include strong emotion from the author/reporter? Are commentators yelling at each other or calling each other names? Does it lump people into groups like “Liberals” or “Conservatives” or use these words as insults? If so, this should be a red flag that the media outlet’s opinion is seeping through. If you’d really like to make up your own mind about things, determine the sources that are toxic, and try out some new ones. Name-calling only reinforces stereotypes, which breaks down critical thinking. Ideas need not be placed in boxes and labeled by party or viewpoint. Ideas are ideas; the good ones will withstand serious questions.
I think as we move forward from this election, we, as well-informed citizens, have a duty to regularly assess our news sources. If we lock ourselves into our own bubbles, our own customized news feeds, we are only viewing a small slice of the world, and it’s probably the slice that’s just like us. We risk further alienation from one another. We might, for instance, not recognize that middle-class America strongly feels it’s needs have been ignored, resulting in an election result that no one on the left saw coming.
Or we might just as likely walk around for years believing in exploding maple trees.