“It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so.”
That quote from Will Rogers has never been more true than it is today. Rogers was a film star, columnist, author and radio personality. The journalist H.L. Mencken referred to Rogers in 1928 as “the most dangerous writer alive.”
Rogers wrote during the early part of the 20th century, before and during the Great Depression, at a time when many Americans were struggling. The societal parallels to today are striking—people without jobs, families struggling, uncertain futures. Except for one thing: in the 1920s, we didn’t have social media, where anyone and everyone can post things that they believe to be true—even if those things are in fact not true.
People should be cognizant of sources on social or any media. Ignore memes where anyone can make up a quote and post it on a colorful background or against a photo meant to illustrate their opinion, which they somehow think magically morphs it into “fact.”
Is the source of the information you are reading, watching, listening to, or spewing forward a legitimate source?
Then again, what, in this day and age, constitutes a “legitimate” source? Many people no longer trust the 24-hour “news” channels because they say there is too much talk and opinion, and not enough focus on expertise or factual information. Or they focus only on sources that they feel validate their own opinion.
Young people don’t even watch or read traditional news anymore. Everything for them is gathered through their smartphones.
I majored in journalism in college, so this is a subject on which I feel I am somewhat qualified to speak. The main tenet of the Society of Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics is to “seek truth and report it.”
A legitimate news source should have no other agenda than to inform the public. You should absolutely read, watch, or listen to sources and opinions on both sides of a particular issue. But be well aware of their bias.
An article on webliteracy.pressbooks.com entitled, “What makes a trustworthy news source?”, notes that good news sources “have significant processes and resources dedicated to promoting accuracy and correcting errors whenever they are made.” Errors will happen as news reporters are human. What is important here is acknowledging and correcting errors.
Legitimate news sources are transparent. They clearly distinguish between columnists, or opinion pieces like mine, and news stories. They tell you where the information they are presenting was obtained (was it an expert on the subject?), who verified it, and even provide links within the story. And importantly, they disclose conflicts of interest.
Take the issue of Covid-19 vaccinations. One can find myriad expert sources on both sides of this issue including doctors, scientists and other health care professionals.
Many say the vaccine helps, others say it doesn’t. The Centers for Disease Control, which has studied viruses for decades but which many people for some reason now don’t believe, says the vaccine is highly effective at keeping people from becoming hospitalized if they contract Covid.
However, if you want an even more legitimate source, in my humble opinion, talk to an actual nurse or doctor who works in the Covid unit of a hospital. What are they seeing? Are people who are vaccinated getting less sick with the virus than unvaccinated people? You can believe what you want about the vaccine; they actually know what is true, because they see it firsthand.
Same thing with the drug hydroxychloroquine, which many people thought was the miracle drug that we should be giving everyone stricken with Covid.
A news story on BBC.com notes that one of the world's largest studies involving this drug—the Recovery trial run by Oxford University—involved 11,000 patients with coronavirus in hospitals across the United Kingdom. It tested the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and several other potential treatments against Covid-19, concluding that "there is no beneficial effect of hydroxychloroquine in patients hospitalized with Covid-19."
The Lupus Foundation of America (hydroxychloroquine is used in the treatment of lupus) reports on its website that “the best available evidence suggests that hydroxychloroquine is not effective in the treatment and prevention of Covid-19, and the potential benefits of the drug do not outweigh the known and potential risks.”
Yet there are people with no research or medical background who will argue with Oxford University and the Lupus Foundation about the drug’s effectiveness against Covid.
Being able to distinguish between truth and opinion is essential to the continuation of a functional society. The problem today is that, even when presented with the truth, some people choose not to believe it.
The question is: How do we deal with those who believe “what ain’t so?”
Jayne Flores is the director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs and a long-time journalist. Contact her at email@example.com.