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How Journalism Moves Forward In An Age Of Disinformation And Distrust

·7-min read
Anti-vaccine protestors hold placards a day after the country opened COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone 18 years old and above, outside Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, on Aug. 21, 2021. (Photo: Mike Hutchings via Reuters)
Anti-vaccine protestors hold placards a day after the country opened COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone 18 years old and above, outside Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, on Aug. 21, 2021. (Photo: Mike Hutchings via Reuters)

The world is broken.

But then, it’s always been a little damaged, right?

Sure, it’s only in recent history that humans, post the Industrial Revolution, had the power to destroy the Earth. But even before, our tenure as the stewards of this planet has been filled with war, slavery, rape, and genocide. Humans, with all our technology and innovation, aren’t always the best ambassadors to justify our existence on a planet that might be better off without us.

And yet, in knowing this, I also know that this is, right now, a relatively peaceful time in human history.

Yes. Now, when barbarism in the form of our penal system and policing still run amok. When science and medicine are clashing with personal “freedom.” When the wind down of the war in Afghanistan results in death and tragedy. When we are still reckoning with the sins of colonialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, and a white supremacy nourished by them all.

But this is it, now is the most peaceful time. A time not marked by a world war or massive genocide, but — in the Western world — disinformation, polarization, and anti-intellectualism.

In the thick of all of it is the American press, not quite as screwed as journalists in other parts of the world, where an editorial cartoon or less-than-rosy article could lead to imprisonment or death. But we are still struggling with a reputation marred by our own fallibility, coupled with a lack of media literacy fueled by huge swaths of people struggling with an adult version of oppositional defiant disorder.

While you, the person reading this article, know how the news sausage is made — by a mix of near-fanatical devotees to the freedom of information and … a few status-humping nerds — most Americans do not. They see the invisible hand of the elite, the Illuminati, or the New World Order. They see “Soros-backed” muck-making, where someone or something all-knowing and all-powerful, puts microchips in vaccines even though it’s a lot easier for the government and corporations just to track everyone through their smartphones.

And yet, what choice do we in the press have against this flood of disinformation and myth-making? What options are at our disposal? The same ones that have always been — our voice, our reach, and our creativity. We have to move beyond “both-sidesism” and take a stance on the side of reality — our multicultural, diverse, multifaceted, very real, reality. Not the world as we want it to be. Not the world as we think it should be. But focusing on being truth-tellers and town-criers of what this world actually is. We have to be radically transparent about our biases and beliefs. We have to be honest in who we are and what we are reporting to the world and move beyond this idea that journalists enter the profession tabula rasa, as if we aren’t shaped and molded by the world around us.

They say if you’re going through hell to keep going. The Age of Disinformation is a kind of hell. Yet we have to persist lest the Republic perish. We have to go forward through this darkness until we find light again.

I’ll admit it. The Illuminati mess sounds a lot more fun than the reality of news evangelists and the gossipy cravenness of, say, Tucker Carlson all stewing together in a swampy, media soup, but that’s what we have in the United States. The “man behind the curtain” is actually three erudite toddlers standing on each other’s shoulders in a trench coat.

Yet, no matter how many times I tell Everyman and Everywoman U.S.A. this, either in a thread on some woebegone web page or on a coffee date with someone I should have never swiped right on, the result is the same — I seem like a nice lady and all, but “you can’t trust everything you read in a book,” ignoring how they’re arguing “facts” gleaned from commenters thrice removed on Facebook.

And you can point out how ludicrous it is to trust strangers on the internet over people who have spent their entire lives studying how the world works, who are educated, and who have dedicated their lives to making the world a better place. But that’s where Illuminati rears its head and the nerd is to be feared. It’s easier to believe your horoscope than your doctor.

So, America dips into ivermectin magic and superstition, partially fueled by the presidency of Donald Trump — but there was honestly always an anti-intellectual cancer in the bone marrow of the Republic. We are facing a pandemic that probably will never end, an assault on women’s rights and voting rights at the same time, and a distrust of the mainstream press that will persist and worsen until we finally decide to do something about it or we allow ourselves to enter a new Dark Ages of disease, superstition, and ignorance.

This is why I always say, the only way is forward. I have no interest in getting in a time machine and going to the “halcyon” 1950s where I could get tortured, beaten, shot, and drowned in the Tallahatchie River for ending up on the wrong end of a white person’s cruelty. I don’t want to go back to the ’90s with its “gay panic defense,” super-predator ways. I don’t even want to go back to last week. I only want to go forward, where every step hopefully leads to greater progress, equality, and freedom for all.

The reality is, after a norm- and reality-shattering presidency and a global pandemic, there is no “return to normal.” Normal was choked out and shot in the face by our police state years ago. There is no Marvel-fueled “time heist” where we can go back and undo the damage we have wrought. Instead of us saving the day, we have to just live in the waking nightmare of our mistakes. Where COVID denial leads to COVID death, after death, after death, after death. And from medical practitioners to the press, witnesses to the madness, we start to become hardened.

That’s why our work at HuffPost is so vital. It’s why we focus on truth-telling — elevating and amplifying that truth over giving equal weight to both facts and fictions simply because someone is screaming the lie loud enough. Whether it was our tireless reporting on the Jan. 6 insurrection and its aftermath. Or pushing back against false narratives around COVID-19 and the vaccines fighting it. It’s why we need the blunt and direct writing of individuals like Adam Serwer at The Atlantic or Karen Attiah at The Washington Post. It’s why we have assembled and are still adding to our incredible team at HuffPost. We are dedicated. We are invested. And we are moving forward in truth.

It is important to remember that this is not the end, but just a progression of what has always been and of what we are becoming. We must avoid apathy. We must denounce fear. We must fight ignorance.

The press can’t afford to fall into disarray and depression while reporting on the collapsing world around us. Not when we’re more important than ever as a beacon of truth in a swamp of mis- and disinformation. This is the time where we put up or will be shut up by the darkness, and I, for one, have no interest in silence.

I choose progress — a newsroom that is more diverse and representative of our society, a press that is more nimble and adaptive, an office that is your coffee table or kitchen table or whatever you’ve fashioned as a desk in your home, one that is compassionate and empathetic toward those in the field every day, mired in the business of muck, and one that is resilient in the face of the apocalypse.

I know we are prepared to face what is ahead of us because we have faced worse and have been wearier before. Because this moment of madness is the most peaceful time in human history, and we have to focus on the long, progressive arc of time and not the short bursts of cacophony and violence that punctuate our backsliding and slipping.

We’re going to make it. But if the past is prologue, it won’t be pretty.

This piece was originally published at Neiman Reports.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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