The press has responsibility but so do readers
The China Post News Staff Saturday, March 18, 2017, 12:02 am TWN
Journalism is based on the principle of providing facts and educated analysis to the readers in order to help them understand the world and to make choices. In the post-fact world, however, it is clear that facts alone are not enough.
In an article in the Financial Times last week, economist Tim Harford outlined a worrying view on the impact of facts on public discourses. In his analysis, truth-tellers are facing an uphill battle because facts in and of themselves are often not enough to disperse lies or counter myths.
Truths are often not simple and do not conform to people's established world views. They can be also less sensational and exciting than untruths and half-truths.
Researchers have found that even when people believe information that runs against their views, the exposure to truth can "backfire" and persuade people to subscribe to their existing views even more strongly.
Fact-checkers attempting to debunk myths can also sometimes achieve the opposite, as their efforts might actually reinforce the myths simply by repeating them. Harford quoted a proponent of the U.K. Brexit campaign who suggested that the widely debunked claim that the U.K. sends 350 million pounds (US$433 million) to the EU every week was in fact more effective because it was false.
"In cynical campaigning terms, the use of the 350 million pound figure was perfect," the Brexit proponent said.
"It created a trap that the Remain campaign kept insisting on jumping into again and again and again."
Even if people believed the truth, the message embodied by the debunked myth had already struck.
The key to resisting "alternative facts" and myths might lie in the promotion of curiosity. Merely feeding facts to people can be ineffective and even backfire, but curiosity invites people to seek out the facts.
Curious people also tend to be more ready to modify their views as they find enjoyment in finding out how things really work, instead of just finding out that they are right.
Journalism alone cannot achieve the task of instilling curiosity into the public. Education is crucial in that respect as curiosity is often nurtured in a person's formative years.
Unfortunately, curiosity is not the top priority in Taiwan's education system, which focuses more on the mastery of information. Even universities tend to treat students as children and emphasize taking care of them on the behalf of their parents more than inspiring them as adults.
It is the responsibility of news media to seek out truths and present them to the public, but it is also time for people to assume responsibility for themselves.
It is convenient to ridicule tabloids that pander to human beings' baser instincts and reporters who hover around online gossip forums for news, but if we don't set out to be open-minded to facts and to the possibility that we can be wrong, then we will be just rewarding the myth-making machine that we like to blame.
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