False news puts public safety at risk

Technology has surpassed media literacy in the digital age, which has resulted in a number of consequences such as a crisis in democracy but also in the way people are misinformed about what is going on right in their neighborhood.

A Stanford University study of young and digital-savvy middle and high school students  released last month found they tend to be media illiterate when it comes to information they see on the Internet, showing alarming weakness in distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from.

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the study’s report. “Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

One of the many problems this finding reveals is that digital media consumers are presumably misinformed and uninformed about the news they need to know in their own community. We know this is happening because we see this information regularly popping up on our social media feeds, unconfirmed and unverified, usually not accurate or completely true, and in many cases completely fictional.

Which reminds us of one of sayings of Mark Twain, an old newsman himself, which has never been more true than today: “A lie spreads halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.” Through the digital medium, false and fake news literally spreads at the speed of light to many more people nowadays.

Newspapers, the ones left still practicing the publication of truth and legitimate news, can’t compete with that speed, but they can sure use more help from public officials, particularly in the public safety sector, to be more diligent and forthcoming with information the taxpayers who pay their salaries need to know about what is going on in their communities.

Officials who withhold or restrict information from journalists trying to inform the people with news they need to know are not living up to their oath to protect and serve, when they leave the people to get their “news” from social media.

Some facts might need to be withheld at certain points, but any facts that can be made available should be shared promptly by public safety officials to professional journalists so the social media fake and false news can be truthfully debunked.

As has always been the case, transparency through the free flow of information done by journalists is good for the people.

A Daily Mining Gazette editorial