A diminishing respect for the truth

Have we become nostalgic for a time when it was simpler to discern what information possesses credibility?

Yes, I think so, but at the same time with so many different forms of information out there it has become more of a challenge to judge what represents a trustworthy source. There is no rulebook here. No one is going to guide you through the miasma of fake news.

These trends along with changes in the media environment such as the diminished role of gatekeepers and vastly expanded opportunities for circulation of both information and misinformation in the Digital Age make exposure to inaccurate information both more common and more difficult to detect.

Can you honestly say that what you read is credible? What the person next to you reads is trustworthy?

Barzilai & Chinn (2020) characterizes the new post-truth world as one with a diminishing respect for the truth. People give up trying to uncover the truth when confronted by overwhelming waves of information. In some cases, the truth becomes secondary to one’s political or social beliefs (Buckingham, 2019).

Maybe we can all hold to our own truths now.

The infamous alternative facts interview with Kellyann Conway

The task of investigating the elements of post-truth stretches back well before the term was first used in 2016 (Buckingham, 2019). At the beginning of the millennium, Wineburg (2001) studied the responses of high school students and academics to a series of primary and secondary sources chronicling the Battle of Lexington. In ranking eight documents, the academics placed eye-witness accounts written at the time of the battle as the most credible. The textbook included as one source of information was ranked last

The students viewed the text as the most credible source of information on the incident (2001). According to one student, the credibility of the text came from its reliance on “straight information”. The text, one student explained, was “just reporting the facts – ‘The rebels were ordered to disperse. They stood their ground.’ Just concise, journalistic in a way, just saying what happened” (p. 68, 2001).

The difference between the students and the academics came down to their “sense-making abilities”, in other words, their ability to source or look at where the document came from, make efforts to place each document into context and compare the various documents with one another (Wineburg, 1991, p.77 ). For these students, authority came from the established text – it was the one source for accurate information. Unlike the academics in this study, they lacked the discernment skills that would allow them to ask important questions about their evidence (Wineburg, 2001).

These results are reflected in other studies that show students incapable of judging legitimate digital information from sites designed to confuse or deliver a particular partisan message (Chinn et al., 2021; Kahne & Bowyer, 2017; Macedo-Rouet et al., 2019; McGrew et al., 2017; McGrew et al., 2018; Pérez et al., 2018).

I am a teacher, I am not (or ever will be) an academic. Studying the problem without offering a concrete plan or path out of the swamp is not good enough.

Researchers suggest that students and teachers need to be taugh explicitly how to discern what is credible. McGrew et al. (2018) suggest that what is needed is civic online reasoning instruction. The components of this instruction include:

  • determining who is supporting or sponsoring the author of an article
  • investigating possible conflict of interest on the part of the writer or source
  • practice on how to evaluate evidence
  • learning to discern if a claim is supported by the evidence

I have not yet seen a program that actually does all these things for students and teachers. With even a hint of encouragement, this would have been a really interesting area to research. Traditional media literacy methods do not seem to be up to the challenges of the post-truth era. We need something else to develop teachers and students capable of identifying credible sources of information.

Without a new tool chest, the democratic values that underpin our society will increasingly be threatened. The freedom convoy and the January 6 assault on Washington are just two examples of where this leads.

So if we understand the problem – where do we go from here?