by Lisa Schaertl
One of the most important things I learned in high school was from my journalism teacher. She said: “Just because it’s in print, don’t think it was sent down from God.”
Every writer has a bias, she explained. No matter how hard we try to be neutral, that bias will show. It shows in the stories we choose to write, the quotes we choose to use, the facts we include and the facts we never mention because we decide they’re not important.
As a consumer of newspaper stories, she went on, you must be aware of this bias and understand how it affects the story. An article can be completely true, yet still be misleading. Any article, no matter how carefully neutral, can never tell you the whole story. Finally, understand that you’re more likely to miss the author’s bias if you happen to share it.
This lesson needs broader dissemination. Especially now that anyone can publish anything online.
From what I see, even intelligent readers are not bothering to consider the source of the stuff they read online. They swallow it whole and pass it on as truth, without a minute’s pause to check out the author’s credibility -- let alone the far more subtle issue of the author’s bias.
True story: I enjoy lurking on the educators’ listserv that my husband reads. Periodically, one of the teachers (usually an English teacher, for some reason) will post a shocked “can you believe this?” message, along with an article they found online. (The latest was another attack on evolution.)
Invariably another teacher (usually a science teacher, for some reason) will reply with: “Hmmm, that looks like it’s from The Onion… yep, it’s The Onion all right.” And proceed to explain – again - that the Onion is satire, not to be taken seriously.
What they don’t do – out of professional courtesy I suppose – is chastise the poster for their awesome gullibility.
But they should. Imagine what teachers who can’t tell their facts from The Onion are teaching our kids! At the very least, I doubt their ability to teach how to do research and “critical thinking.”
It’s a very, very basic concept – know your source. It’s always been important. With our kids living online it’s now a critical life skill. It’s not that hard. Ten minutes with Google or Snopes is usually all it takes to get a good idea of the source’s credibility. This basic skill needs to be taught, and used.
P.S. Before I get attacked by swarms of angry English teachers, I hasten to add that the listserv poster I mentioned above may be the only teacher in the world who would ever do such a thing. I sure hope so.
Lisa Schaertl is president of Tech Savvy Marketing, specializing in marketing and PR for high tech companies.