WHAT'S LEFT: Journalists need to do better when it comes to fighting misinformation
When misinformation is weaponized, journalists are too often leaving vulnerable people caught in the crossfire.
WORTHINGTON —There’s a trust issue in media, one that has been well-documented in recent years. In 2022, a Gallup poll found that over half the respondents had either very little, or no confidence that mass media was reporting fully, accurately and fairly.
Last week we saw the conclusion of a massive lawsuit against Fox News, where a multinational media channel admitted that their claims of election fraud regarding the 2020 presidential election were false.
Now, the Fox situation is extreme, but it’s far from the sole contributor to the dire state of affairs, and speaking as both a consumer and producer of news, I think the distrust the public holds towards the media is earned, to a certain degree.
Reporters are fallible. We make mistakes and when that happens we should issue corrections. We should always be striving to provide our audiences with information that is correct, to the best of our ability.
We’re also opinionated, which means while complete objectivity is the ideal, it’s also an impossibility. Regardless of how hard we try, our individuality, beliefs and biases inform our reporting. It’s a balancing act, and I think very deliberately about my reporting. Regardless of what I’m writing about, I want to be fair. I want to feel I have written with integrity.
My priority is always to provide readers with the necessary information to know what’s happening in their community, and in the world around them. What conclusions they draw after that is out of my hands, which is both somewhat a comfort and deeply frustrating at different turns.
It is, in part, why the way newsrooms sometimes handle misinformation bothers me so much. The last couple of years have been, in my opinion, a horror show of misinformation, from false narratives about voter fraud to inaccuracies about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sometimes, I don’t think we as reporters do our due diligence in making clear what is true, and what isn’t. I think the news industry as a whole has done a disservice to the public in this regard, and nowhere do I see this issue more pertinently than in coverage of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
For example, if one of the sources you’re quoting about trans health has been declared unfit as an expert by a judge and is the past president of what has been classified as an anti-LGBTQ hate group , I think you should disclose that, even if he does make such compelling claims for anti-trans legislation, like that trans people’s life expectancy is reduced by half after transitioning. I think that, just maybe, that information is relevant.
It is, at best, ignorant and at worst, intentionally and maliciously hateful, spreading misinformation about medical care that numerous studies have found to improve the mental health of trans and non-binary people — and if it’s the second, I think it’s both gutless and cruel to take your platform and peddle lies concerning a demographic that is already highly vulnerable.
While we're on the topic, I just want to point out that the study I’ve seen referenced in regard to the shortened life expectancy of trans people, doesn’t actually support that gender-affirming hormone treatment poses a great health risk to trans people. While trans people, and transwomen in particular do show an increased mortality risk, the study concluded that the most common causes of death — including suicide and “non-natural” causes — gave no indication of being related to gender-affirming hormone treatment. What researchers did suggest is that improved healthcare for trans individuals and social acceptance would help to decrease the high mortality rate.
This was information that was gathered to increase understanding of a persistent issue facing vulnerable people, and it’s being misused as a scare tactic and weaponized against the very people it identified as needing help.
With the rising number of bills targeting trans people and the LGBTQ+ community at large, I’ve read a frustrating number of false statements, most often made by politicians, and then published indiscriminately by journalists without any kind of disclaimer that that information was incorrect. This is both embarrassing and harmful, and we, as journalists need to do better.
During and prior to the 2022 election cycle, I attended a truly absurd number of meetings where the topic of litterboxes in schools was brought forth, based on an unfounded rumor that was never, at any point, true. But this hoax got repeated by public officials and talk show and podcast hosts, and then it appeared in headlines, and I hear about it at meetings. For months.
It’s a ridiculous untruth, and yet when the question of non-gendered bathrooms gets posed, I’m listening to an elected official say “Yeah, but where do we draw the line? What if they want litterboxes?” and it’s all from a lie, repeated.
When someone blatantly lies or misrepresents the truth, and journalists have the resources to prove that, it is our job and our responsibility to do so. It is our job to make sure that the information we are providing is true, and when it comes to accurate reporting on LGBTQ+ identities, there is an absolute wealth of vetted, published scientific material. There are accounts from people with lived experience who talk and educate on these matters, and honestly, there’s no excuse to be regurgitating half-truths or flat-out lies and putting them on air or in print without context.
When it comes to opinion columns, if someone wants to write about how they think being trans or gay is immoral, well, that’s their opinion. But when that op-ed contains misinformation I think news organizations have a responsibility to consider the real harm and validity of the content they’re publishing.
I want to be very clear: I am not saying that I want only content I personally agree with to be published. I like a healthy debate — it's even been said that I like to argue. I want to read things that challenge my opinions and cause me to reevaluate my stance or reexamine weaknesses in my own arguments. The challenge is important for growth.
However, if it takes no more than 15 minutes and a working internet connection to debunk, it shouldn’t be put out there. People are entitled to their opinions; they are not entitled to a platform, especially if they’re only using it to twist the facts into something unrecognizable and then hold it up as the truth.