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Don't be misled by misinformation

Kentucky School Advocate
August 2021

By Josh Shoulta
KSBA Director of Communications

There are so many places to consume information today, how can I be sure that what I am reading or hearing is true?

The Reuters Institute, in surveying more than 92,000 people in 46 countries, found that trust in news media increased worldwide in 2020*. The United States, however, represented a rare exception where that trust continued to plummet. We ranked dead last in terms of our proportion of citizens who generally trust the news they are consuming.

The Pew Research Center found that the majority of Americans** now prefer to get their news from “digital platforms” such as news websites, social media, search engines, etc., meaning that many are looking for information where it is more difficult to confirm validity.

Now, how do you know if what I just told you is accurate? Let’s start with the fact that I referenced the two sources from which I pulled this information and even cited them with footnotes. Considering you are reading this in a magazine published by the leading school board resource in Kentucky, a non-profit association, you can rest assured that the information holds water. Unfortunately, not all the content you will see today will be as easily verifiable.

If trust in our news is waning while the means in which we consume news is becoming more complex, how can we ensure what we are reading and seeing is reliable? In the age of misinformation and “fake news,” public-facing leaders like school board members and legislators should be expected to practice reasonable discernment in the information they consume and propagate. Here are a few things to consider when seeking (and sharing) content.

Search for meaning, not memes
How often have you seen a heated argument break out on social media over the posting of a sensational meme or graphic? These images and the misinformation they may be perpetuating spread like wildfire while undermining the public’s understanding of important issues. Resist the urge to lend your platforms to messaging that serves more to agitate than to objectively inform. Before sharing such images, take a breath and consider (1) if the information presented can be confirmed, (2) if the information is vulnerable to misinterpretation and (3) if the post will do more to fan the flames of controversy than to articulate facts. By sharing the image, are you helping or are you trolling?

Anecdotal examples alone, particularly those presented without context or a cited source, should not be the basis for shaping one’s opinion. Next time you are listening to a pundit on TV, radio or a podcast, listen closely for one or more of the following setups:

“Studies have shown…” What studies? Can you cite them?

“Many are saying…” How many? Are they relevant to the topic at hand?

“Someone was telling me…” Okay, who? And how did this come up?

Anecdotal evidence is akin to storytelling, a powerful tool but only when paired with data and facts. Otherwise, you are essentially left with hearsay. If someone is building an argument solely around vague anecdotes, it is OK to have a healthy skepticism until you have the opportunity to do your research.

Challenge your own bias by learning
We are all susceptible to confirmation bias – the tendency to seek out information that affirms our existing beliefs. Simply because we disagree with something, however, doesn’t mean that the information presented is inaccurate. If we are mindful of our confirmation bias, we can actually harness its power when considering the facts. As a way of ultimately strengthening your position, force yourself to study opposing viewpoints (based on valid sources). Try to understand why others may feel the way they do. In doing so, you will gain more perspective of an issue and will likely develop empathy for others around the table – both important qualities for those in positions of leadership.

*Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. (2021). Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021, 10th Edition. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/digital-news-report/2021/dnr-executive-summary

**Pew Research Center. (January, 2021). News Use Across Social Media Platforms in 2020. https://www.journalism.org/2021/01/12/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-in-2020/

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