Being able to differentiate between fake, false and slanted news is important in a time of intense ideological division in the United States, The New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens told Jason Greenblatt during a recent episode of Newsweek‘s The Diplomat podcast.
Greenblatt, the former White House envoy to the Middle East under former President Donald Trump, discussed strategies for consuming news content with Stephens during an episode of The Diplomat, which Greenblatt hosts, that was released on Thursday.
The conversation touched on a broad range of issues but largely focused on advice for Americans for how to seek a balanced news diet.
Stephens told Greenblatt he believes there is such a thing as fake news but said it is important to be “precise” in the use of the term, which can be confused with other kinds of incorrect information.
“I think there is fake news, I think there is false news, and there is slanted news,” Stephens said.
“Fake news, in my book, is news that is written with the knowledge that it is fake news, with the knowledge that I am going to put out a deliberate piece of misinformation, knowing full well that it is misinformation.”
False news, Stephens explained, is “wrong” news, or news that is incorrect, but not intentionally so.
“This is a distinction that we’re at a risk of losing,” Stephens said. There is an abundance of false news across the media landscape due to the nature of the industry at this time, he added.
The kind of news Stephens identified as “most common” is slanted news.
“It is perfectly possible to tell stories that are accurate in their details, but ultimately misleading in the picture they paint,” he said of slanted news. This kind of news can be lacking in the necessary context to provide a full and balanced overview of the issue at hand.
“I think it’s the job of responsible journalism to try to apply a sufficient number of filters so that you are weeding out the obvious biases,” which Stephens said can include questioning both sides of an issue and quoting them both “extensively” and “fairly” within an article. The perspective shared at the end of any given story also often serves as “usually a tip-off to a certain kind of slant,” he added.
The media industry is “very troubled” at this time, which Stephens said is partially a result of the industry facing allegations of spreading fake news. This environment has made many mainstream outlets “very defensive” and “blinder to their own prejudices” instead of more aware of them, he said.
Before digging into the differences between fake, false and slanted news, Stephens noted the presence of the social media age during a wider discussion about the current path on which the U.S. is traveling. Social media “accelerated and made more vivid, more obvious, more constant, the partisan and ideological division” in the U.S., he said.
Even so, “I will say that I think there is a secret hunger out there for a more civil form of discourse,” Stephens said. He pointed to “The Conversation,” a weekly discussion he has with his liberal-leaning colleague Gail Collins. The goal of “The Conversation” is “to have a conversation, not an argument,” Stephens explained, adding that while the discussions “barely exist” on social media, they are popular among The New York Times‘ readers.
Stephens said he believes that people “really are hungry for a sense of civility” and “for disagreements that are healthy, not toxic.”
Greenblatt asked Stephens how he would advise young adults to seek a wide range of viewpoints and avoid falling into a situation where they are always getting news from the same sources. Stephens said he has “always” encouraged his own children to look for opposing views so they can understand the different sides of any given issue.
“I think the other important thing is, you need to surround your news reading with a broader architecture of facts, a broader architecture of understanding,” he added. While overseeing interns in the past, Stephens said he required them all to read Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s so they would have a strong historical background on the events of the last century.
“I think that’s important,” Stephens said. “It means the newsreader, the young newsreader, brings more to the table than just the words that are before them.”
Stephens said it is also important for news consumers to “keep an eye out” for opposing viewpoints.
“Look for those countervailing points of data; look at the information that’s outside of the consensus before you sort of swallow whole what the consensus has to say,” Stephens said.
Greenblatt concluded the episode by noting that, while his own views aren’t always aligned with those of The New York Times, he does read the paper.
For individuals who “really want to become educated about what’s happening in the world,” Greenblatt said it is important “to read and consume all sorts of news media in order to try to get a better understanding of what is actually happening.”
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