In 'fake news' era, whom do you trust?

These are confusing times. In an avalanche of disparate claims and accusations, many Americans don’t know what to believe anymore. Our president’s constant demonization of the free press, one of the pillars of any democracy, hasn’t helped. A former student of mine recently dismissed all politicians as “bold-faced liars, every one of them.” I understand his frustration, but his assessment is overly cynical and a dangerous form of “false equivalence.” Just because no politician is 100 percent honest and correct doesn't mean they're all equally dishonest and incorrect.

So how do ordinary citizens assess the accuracy of all the claims out there? Most of us aren't senators or diplomats or intelligence agents. We don’t have their resources and connections. We can’t personally research every claim every politician and pundit makes. We’re like “the blind men and the elephant” — our limited experiences are subjective and insufficient to grasp the whole truth. We have to trust others to help us, namely journalists who aren’t constantly trying to garner votes for the next election. In a free society it’s a journalist’s job to research facts and uncover the truth. But which media outlets and journalists should we trust?

First of all this needs restating: Despite all the cynicism coming from some quarters, the fact is America’s mainstream media and journalists have long provided great service to our country. Journalists have risked their lives to get at the truth. In some instances, they’re murdered for their efforts. You might think that only happens in other countries, but it’s happened here in the United States as well — most recently, when four journalists and a sales assistant for the Capital Gazette in Annapolis were killed on June 28.

Aside from threats to their lives, careers and liberty, journalists constantly face stonewalling. Two fairly recent and highly acclaimed movies that dramatized what journalists must deal with and the service they perform were “The Post” (2017) and “Spotlight" (2015), stories about truths exposed by the New York Times, Washington Post and the Boston Globe. I’m not advocating that we get our information from movies. I’m praising what’s best about American journalism — the courage and integrity it takes to gather, assess and present factual information objectively.

With the advent of the Internet and social media, countless so-called “real news” sites have popped up that are clearly propaganda machines. Many don’t tell us who they are. For all we know they’re Donald Trump’s 400-pound man in bed with a laptop or an army of Russian hackers still posing as Americans, the ones President Trump still seems reluctant to believe exist or do anything about. No doubt more established media sources have made mistakes, but the fact remains some news sites clearly have better track records than others. The transparency and the number of journalism awards they’ve won attest to their superiority. Why is outside validation important? Would you want to be operated on by a doctor with no medical degree? Don’t medals and trophies attest to an athlete’s skills? It’s foolish to believe anyone claiming to have superior skills or knowledge without external evidence such as diplomas and awards. They don’t prove it either, but they help.

As of this writing the Boston Globe has won 26 Pulitzer Prizes for journalism; The Washington Post, 47 Pulitzers; The New York Times, 125 Pulitzers. (The Baltimore Sun has won 15.) One of the most prestigious awards for television and radio news is the Edward R. Murrow Award. CBS, ABC, NBC, and NPR have won numerous Edward R. Murrow Awards. How many national Murrow awards has FOX News won? If you research the Radio Television Digital News Association — the organization founded in 1946 that encourages journalistic integrity and gives out the Murrow awards — you won't find many. Yet it appears millions of Americans including our president, unable or unwilling to distinguish between responsible journalism and opinion media, still get much of their information from FOX.

There was a memorable line from a popular TV series in the ‘80s called “Hill Street Blues.” After each roll call, before sending his charges into the street, a police sergeant would caution “Hey, let’s be careful out there.” With the apparent rise of nationalism globally — the cause of two world wars — it seems nothing less than the survival of democracy is at stake. We need to be careful out there, to be more judicious about choosing our news sources and our politicians.

Paul Totaro is a retired Baltimore City school teacher; his email is

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