A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Ron Daley: As the country faces coronavirus pandemic, getting to the truth proves a tall order

This past April Fools’ Day encouraged me to reflect on my two decades of publishing the Troublesome Creek Times in Knott County and harken back to a time when my readers believed what they read or saw in other news outlets.

We “Baby Boomers” grew up watching and trusting the words of Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and Harry Reasoner among others on the three networks. Those days have passed during this time of deep partisan divide that has now polarized American society.

I attempted to be a watchdog for how public dollars were utilized and share accurate information about life in our county and region. However, once a year I had fun with our April Fools’ edition fooling our readers. And, I learned about the gullibility of our citizens despite their education level.

I used local officials to provide legitimacy to the photos and stories. The image was a powerful tool to fool the ready just as the social media memes of today provide credibility.

I learned if you made people angry with the headline (as a result of the Toyota plant coming to Kentucky and all teachers and students must learn Japanese). I used the photo of a popular high school teacher at his blackboard writing Toyota in Japanese. One pastor, upset and fearful about my story that a nudist colony was coming to Carr Fork Lake, held a prayer service to pray away the colony. Likewise, if you could make the reader think they could get rich (like our first edition that touted gold was discovered in Caney Creek) the fooling was easy.

In that first edition, we had a giant chicken attack Hindman. U.S. Rep. Carl D. Perkins got a kick out of it and he took it around the capitol fooling fellow representatives. People believed the stories when their friends shared it as truth in order to fool them.

I learned later when I published a satirical column that my words were taken literally. Johnathon Swift learned this in his satirical published anonymously A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick, commonly referred to as A Modest Proposal, in 1729. His goal was to expose the cruelty of the rich landlords of Ireland, who were not being aware of the poverty and suffering of the Irish. However, the readers took the proposal seriously.

Images are now powerful tools to fool people. We are learning that the “memes” used in social media are used to spread information and misinformation. Memes have been weaponized to share division, hate and political misinformation. Studies are showing we Americans tend to believe what we want to believe in news whether it is on the Internet or traditional media sources (University of Washington study in August 2019).

Articles from satirical news websites such as the Onion (on politics) or Babylon Bee (on religion) are believed and shared across social media. Viewers are not skilled in differentiating between reporting based on facts and opinion pieces. To many, if it’s on the news, they believe its fact-based.

Ron Daley resides in Lexington. He was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2017.

We are living in a dangerous time as we face the challenged of the COVID-19 so understanding the truth is literally a matter of life and death. Even now, as the death toll rises, many Americans think the pandemic has been exaggerated by the media. Just weeks ago, it was called a hoax by one set of political leaders believing the crisis was manufactured to hurt their party leadership.
Gallup reported in September 2019 that they first measured trust in the mass media in a 1972 survey when 68% of Americans said they trusted it. Similar levels were recorded in 1974 (69%) and 1976 (72%), but two decades later, when Gallup next asked the question, trust had fallen to 53%.

Although overall trust was at the majority level until 2004, no more than 21% of Americans dating back to 1972 ever said they had the greatest level of trust. Currently, 13% have a great deal of trust, 28% a fair amount, 30% not very much and 28% none.

A Monmouth poll in April 2018 found that 77% of Americans believe that the traditional news outlets report “fake news.” The poll found that the belief in the spread of “fake news” by major news outlets also rose from 2017 to now among Republicans, up from 79 to 89%, and independents, rising from 66% to 82%. During that time 61% of the Democrats believed the media spread misinformation up from 43% in the previous year.

President Donald Trump’s calling the media “the enemy of the people” and use of the term fake news has undoubtedly colored the views of all Americans.

Fox News is the only national news source with majority-level trust from Republicans while majorities of Democrats trust six national news sources, Gallup found.

The rise of partisan media outlets in the last two decades has promoted the agenda of one of the two parties causing citizens to be more entrenched in their beliefs and discouraging open and friendly debate on the issues. Liberals gravitate to MSNBC while conservatives watch FOX News. Shows like Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and Sean Hannity are opinion pieces slanted to their political bias. However, they are aired in prime time and promoted as being NEWS.

Never in history has there been a greater need for news to be based on solid factual reporting. We need to know the truth and the media needs to provide accurate information. Common sense should replace biased thinking to save lives and perhaps to save our democracy as well. The media is an important tool in the preservation of our democracy through the dissemination of information to the masses. It helps us hold our leaders and society accountable.

History will not be kind to those who spread false narratives, doing a great disservice to our nation and in turn, causing unnecessary loss of life.

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