Why We Can’t Handle The Truth.

There’s a lot of bad information out there. You’re being spun and manipulated. You’re being sold a version of the truth. Here’s how Stry.us fits into this strange new media landscape — and how we’re trying to fight back.

story by Dan Oshinsky
published July 9, 2012

In a May 4 article on Breitbart.com, the site wrote these words — words that ring as true as any you’ll ever read about politics in this nation:

“Facts are sometimes nasty, persistent things that get in the way of the best political spin.”

How true.

We Americans seem to have an unusual relationship with the truth lately. Seems like we can’t quite figure out what we want it to be.

Take this recent news nugget:

“A new Pew Research Center poll finds that the American public is very interested in last week’s Supreme Court decision on the 2010 health care law. A reported 76 percent of Americans decisively approve or disapprove of the court’s decision, despite that only 55 percent actually know what the court decided.”

Odd, isn’t it? How can so many Americans have an opinion about something that they don’t understand? How is that even possible?

Jonathan Stray of Nieman Journalism Lab explains:

“This effect — where both sides feel that a neutral story is biased against them — has been replicated so many times, in so many different cultural settings, with so many types of media and stories, that it has its own name: hostile media effect. The same story can make everyone on all sides think the media is attacking them.

“Like a lot of experimental psychological research, the hostile media effect suggests we’re not as smart as we think we are. We might like to think of ourselves as impartial judges of credibility and fairness, but the evidence says otherwise. Liberals and conservatives can (and often do) believe the same news report is biased against both their views; they aren’t both right.”

This is a symptom of what’s been happening in media over the last two decades. We’re all conditioned to take a piece of news and spin it toward what we believe, or want to believe. There’s the truth — the hard numbers, the reality — and then there’s the spin.

All those cable news shows keep trotting out talking heads to tell you “what it all means.” And the more you listen to them, the further and further you distance yourself from real answers. Spend an hour flipping between CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, and you’ll have absolutely no idea what’s wrong with America — but you’ll be mad as hell about it.

There is no longer just “the truth,” but many versions of it. There’s the version of the truth you prefer, and the version your neighbor prefers, and the version your crazy aunt — the one who keeps forwarding you those chain emails that suggest Abraham Lincoln really was a vampire killer — prefers.

I believe this upcoming election won’t be about the facts. It’ll be about which version of the truth you subscribe to.

Take the highly divisive issue of oil production. In March, the Congressional Research Service — the nonpartisan research arm of Congress — came out with a report about oil production under our current President. Here are the basic takeaways:

    • Oil production is up under the Obama administration.
    • Oil production on federal property is down.
    • Oil production on private property is up.
    • Overall oil production is expected to stagnate by 2013.

Those are the facts. But you, the news consumer, got wildly different assessments of that news. The President boasted that he’d been getting more oil to the pump. Republicans criticized the President for overstating his impact on those numbers. They slammed him for not getting more oil from their preferred locations — especially federally owned lands.

Some news commentators managed to bungle even the simplest of facts, pulling numbers about oil production out of the air and labeling them as fact. That happens sometimes, and it’s easy to find. What’s trickier to spot is when true numbers are presented to support false conclusions.

This election season, you’ll be seeing ads both for and against the President based on his energy policy. The facts in many of these ads are largely true — but they’re presented and spun within a certain context to help reinforce beliefs you already have.

Whatever truth you already believe, you’ll find news and ideas to support. No wonder the country is sharply divided on this issue. After sifting through the findings from a June poll on energy policy, the AP concluded: “Republicans and Democrats seem to be living on different planets when it comes to how to meet U.S. energy needs.”

Here’s what’s happening: The truth gets hammered at and hammered at until it’s shaped into whatever the newsmakers want it to be, and it’s the American public — a confused, polarized public — that suffers.

There’s never been a trickier time for those of us who work in truth. Out on the Web, if you’ve got a crazy conspiracy theory bouncing around in your hand, confirmation of that theory is only a Google search away.

Even simple facts — like the President’s current location — are up for debate, apparently. Some corners of the Internet were aflame last week over the fact that the President had decided to spend the 4th of July in France.

Except that he hadn’t. That piece of widely reported news was entirely untrue. The President spent the 4th in D.C, hosting a barbecue on the White House lawn for service members and their families.

So what can we in news do to fight back against bad reporting and untruths?

It’s an intimidating question and one that really doesn’t have an answer. But we have to start looking for a solution somewhere. It’s something that we’re trying to address in our work here in Springfield.

What we can do at Stry.us is try to present as many well-reported, well-told stories as we can. When you hear a topic discussed in the news — the economy, poverty, immigration — we hope you’ll come here and read about what’s happening at ground level. It’s not the whole picture, but what’s happening here in Springfield is a part of it. I believe the road to a better union starts with sharing our stories and listening to what’s really happening on the ground — not to what the talking heads in Washington want you to believe.

There are so many versions of the truth out there. I hope that what we’re doing at Stry.us brings you closer to the real thing.