You’re the fact-checker now [Wineberg/McGrew Trafficking In Myths]

You’re the fact-checker now

From the post:

No matter what media stream you depend on for news, you know that news has changed in the past few years. There’s a lot more of it, and it’s getting harder to tell what’s true, what’s biased, and what may be outright deceptive. While the bastions of journalism still employ editors and fact-checkers to screen information for you, if you’re getting your news and assessing information from less venerable sources, it’s up to you to determine what’s credible.

“We are talking about the basic duties of informed citizenship,” says Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education.

Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, a doctoral candidate in education, tested the ability of thousands of students ranging from middle school to college to evaluate the reliability of online news. What they found was discouraging: even social media-savvy students at elite universities were woefully unskilled at determining whether or not information came from reliable, unbiased sources.

Winburg and McGrew arrived at the crisis of “biased” news decades, if not centuries too late.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, published in 2002, traces the willing complicity of the press in any number of fictions that served the interests of the government and others.

There is a documentary by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick about Noam Chomsky and Manufacturing Consent. Total run time is: 2 hours, 40 minutes and 24 seconds. I read the book, did not watch the video. But if you prefer video:

Herman and Chomsky don’t report some of the earlier examples of biased news.

Egyptian accounts of the Battle of Kadesh claim a decisive victory in 1274 or 1273 BCE over the Hittites, accounts long accepted as the literal truth. More recent research treats the Egyptian claims as akin to US claims to winning the war on terrorism.

Winning wars makes good press but no intelligent person takes such claims uncritically.

For the exact details, consider:

The Road to Kadesh: A Historical Interpretation of the Battle Reliefs of King Sety I at Karnak

and, “The Battle of Kadesh: A Debate between the Egyptian and Hittite Perspectives:”

Or as another example of biased reporting, consider the text of You’re the fact-checker now.

From the post:

“Accurate information is an absolutely essential ingredient to civic health,” says Wineburg.

Ok, so what do you make of the lack of evidence for:

…it’s getting harder to tell what’s true, what’s biased, and what may be outright deceptive[?]

I grant there’s a common myth of a time when it was easier to tell “what’s true, what’s biased and what may be outright deceptive.” But the existence of a common myth doesn’t equate to factual truth.

An article exhorting readers to become fact-checkers that is premised on a myth, in Wineburg’s own words, has a “shaky foundation.”

Sources have always been biased and some calculated to deceive, from those that reported total Egyptian victory at Kadesh to more recent examples by Herman and Chomsky.

Careful readers treat all sources as suspect, especially those not considered suspect by others.


Semi-careful readers may object that I have cited no evidence for:

…it’s getting harder to tell what’s true, what’s biased, and what may be outright deceptive.

being a myth.

“Myth” in this context is a rhetorical flourish to describe the lack of evidence presented by Winburg and McGrew for that proposition.

To establish such a claim, the alleged current inability of students to discern between trustworthy and untrustworthy sources requires:

  1. A baseline of what is true, biased, deceptive for time period X.
  2. Test of students (or others) for discernment of truth/bias/deception in reports during period X.
  3. A baseline of what is true, biased, deceptive for time period Y.
  4. Proof the baselines for periods X and Y are in fact comparable.
  5. Proof the tests and their results are comparable for periods X and Y.
  6. Test of students (or others) for discernment of truth/bias/deception in reports during period Y.
  7. Evaluation of the difference (if any) between the results of tests for periods X and Y.

at a minimum. I have only captured the major steps that come to mind. No doubt readers can supply others that I have overlooked.

Absent such research, analysis and proofs, that can be replicated by others, Wineberg and McGrew are trafficking in common prejudice and nothing more.

Such trafficking is useful for funding purposes but it doesn’t advance the discussion of training readers in critical evaluation of sources.

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