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Wading through the 'fake news'

Rebecca Horvath • Jul 29, 2018 at 8:15 AM

A recent Time Magazine cover grabbed attention and headlines when it depicted a small child, clearly distressed and crying, while looking upward; above her loomed a photo of President Donald Trump smiling down at her and the headline “Welcome to America.” While it was obvious they were two separate photos combined, it aimed to tug at heartstrings.

The ongoing debate about border security, illegal immigration and the Trump administration’s goal of enforcing laws already on the books has been rife with misinformation and misguided accusations, but the Time cover may have been the most obvious example: It was a flat out lie.

The little girl featured on the cover — whose genuinely pained expression was similar to any toddler having a meltdown — and her mother had left their home in Honduras for the mother to look for a job in the States. They were not seeking asylum and had left the family home and older children without the husband/father’s consent. The child’s mother had been deported in 2013. Even worse, she allegedly paid a human trafficker to smuggle the two of them across the border.

But the most important point about the photo is that the child was not separated from her mother when the photo was snapped or at any other time. The mother had simply set the child down while talking with border agents; in the original full photo, it’s most likely her mother’s legs right beside the child. Especially in an unfamiliar situation, many children would react that way to their mothers putting them down.

Time apologized for the gross misrepresentation of fact on their cover, but the damage was done. Like a TV lawyer who drops a truth bomb in the courtroom, knowing the judge will quickly overrule it — it can’t be unsaid.

Earlier in the same week as the Time debacle, a Pew Research study was released, showing only about one-quarter of Americans surveyed could identify factual statements as opposed to opinions in news stories. Fake news, anyone?

As an opinion writer, I’ve often chuckled when disagreeing readers have attacked me with, “That’s YOUR opinion!” Well, that’s kind of the point of anything appearing in the Opinion/Editorial page or section. It’s clearly labeled and usually comes with a handy disclaimer.

But what we see on the front page or across the ticker on television should be facts; so often, it’s opinion. Some news sources are laughably biased, but many folks who come down around the middle on issues (that is, a majority of people) may not see the inherent bias. In our everything-happens-in-a-hurry world, most of us do not take the time to delve deeper into every story and actually separate fact from opinion. As a result, there is usually a great deal of misinformation surrounding every major news story.

For example, with the border security and detainment story, the mainstream media neglected to mention a few key points: Families seeking asylum at a proper point of entry were not separated, some children attempting to cross the border had been kidnapped and abused by people posing as family members and the media was strictly forbidden from entering any of the detainment centers where children were housed — meaning any photos we saw of children being held were from another administration. (In fact, family separations were happening in previous administrations and no one seemed to notice.)

Of course, as usual, many people were more interested in attacking the president than getting their facts straight, leading them to just make stuff up.

At the same time, the media who suddenly cared deeply about children managed to ignore news out of Michigan that more than 50 missing children had been found and 11 major child predators were taken down by ICE, thanks to the Trump administration’s crackdown on child sex trafficking.

In another recent example, the media lambasted the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to uphold the president’s travel ban. Calling it a “narrow” decision by a “divided” court, the validity of the decision was called into question. But contrast that with coverage of the same-sex marriage decision from a couple of years ago — also a 5-4 decision. The media celebrated the decision as final and unchangeable without any doubt cast due to the closeness of the vote. The double standard is stunning.

Is it any wonder that trust in the media is low? Highly irresponsible journalism, such as the example on the Time cover, has become far more mainstream than it once was. What happened to good, old-fashioned fact-checking, verifying sources and reporting stories honestly? The media’s agenda should be to report facts, but it clearly isn’t, so it’s up to news consumers to be discriminating, shrewd and thorough in reading between the lines.

There are dozens upon dozens of news sources — in print, online, on screen — as readily accessible as the mobile devices we carry in our hands; very few are even remotely neutral in their reporting. We must recognize bias, call it out when possible and wade through it to find the facts, not just opinions with which we agree.

Rebecca Horvath of Johnson City is a wife, mother and community activist. Reach her at rebeccasjh@hotmail.com.

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