The Beakon: Life on Mars

How to address ‘fake news’


Artwork by Akhila Johny

The New York Times has just published an article proving that life on planet Mars is finally achievable. You’ve consulted your local Neil Armstrong, you’ve sufficiently Googled “What is Mars” and your family of five has already packed their 20 or so duffle bags, half of which are filled to the brim with dehydrated space food.

You’re ready to head to your nearest NASA headquarters and take a seven-month flight to “the planet fourth in order from the sun,” as your diligent Google search has revealed.

But, wait … Donald Trump just tweeted on Aug. 5, 2018 that reporters “cause great division & distrust! They can also cause War! They are very dangerous & sick!

Now you and your family of five are skeptical. You wonder if you’ve stumbled across the great phenomenon known as (drum roll, please) fake news. Oh no! Children cry, women and men scream and there’s anarchy in the streets. The next Armageddon seems like an impending truth.

But, despite the press being “the enemy of the American People,” as Trump so eloquently emphasized on his Twitter account on Feb. 17, 2017, reporters spend every waking moment of their working life toiling over the facts.

Journalists’ religion is the truth. They worship accuracy.

Journalists, like the mythological Greek prophet Cassandra, are often the first to inform, and sometimes suffer her same curse — not being believed. Certainly the president’s war on journalism doesn’t help.

Cassandra warned her fellow citizens of the oncoming Trojan War, and nobody took her seriously. As Greek mythology shows us, this apathetic ignorance had dire consequences. No matter how persuasive and transparent Cassandra was, she was never to be believed. This is known as the Cassandra Curse.

NPR’s Shankar Vedantam produced a podcast around this conundrum, noting that modern Cassandra’s forget that it’s difficult for most people to look far ahead into the future: “If you come in with a vague warning about a distant problem, you’re going to get sidelined.” Currently, this happens whenever modern scientists remind the general population about the accumulating threats of climate change.

Some people take this a step further by not only avoiding individual and specific news sources, but also vowing to avoid all news at all costs. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) wrote that “Discounting all news means discounting true news, too.” Instead of falling prey to this nasty habit, the ASCD writes that young students can verify the validity of news by weeding out personal biases, analyzing sources and using fact-checkers like Politifact, a neutral, online platform that won the Pulitzer Prize.

The ASCD also writes about the importance of questioning authority — news is integral to a functional democracy. Undermining the independent press is a tactic used by authoritarian governments. In countries with state-controlled media like Russia, China, Iran and Zimbabwe, authoritarian leaders stay in power in part by silencing independent media.

The press can help us to accept a truth we don’t want to see.

We accept that the best way to fight the narrative of journalists being “dishonest” or “fake” is to practice journalism at the highest, professional and ethical levels. Or, as the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics demands: “Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable and transparent.”

Oak Park High School doesn’t have a Cassandra. At least, the Talon does all that it can to prevent any similar ‘curse.’ The Talon has implemented an author accuracy check, article statistics survey, added a staff ombudsman (student fact-checker and press-law specialist) and conducted lessons focused around journalistic laws and ethics.

The author accuracy check and article statistics survey are new additions this school year. By ensuring that all possible interviewees are given a chance to confirm the accuracy of our work and are equally represented before publishing, we are following ethical journalistic standards.

The Talon has taken steps in hopes of decreasing the general intensity of pandemonium ensuing from claims of ‘fake news’ and gaining the trust of our thoughtful readers. So that one day, when the mailman knocks on your door with a front-page article reporting that there are condos for sale on Mars, you can feel confident and comfortable packing your mound of duffle bags and dehydrated burritos.