“Post-truth” has been named the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 international word of the year, says the New York Times. Its report that the use of “post-truth” surged after the Brexit vote and again after Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination sent a chill down my spine. Noting it was first used in a 1992 Nation essay citing the Iran-contra scandal and the Persian Gulf War didn’t much help me feel better, either.
Maybe there’s some comfort in knowing that “post-truth” narrowly beat out “alt-right.” And John Daniszewski, vice president for Standards at the Associated Press, stepped up, cautioned journalists to be “specific and deliberate” when using “alt-right,” a label that’s simply a euphemism – or an attempt at whitewashing — white nationalism: “Avoid using the term generically and without definition, however, because it is not well known and the term may exist primarily as a public-relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience,” he wrote. “In the past we have called such beliefs racist, neo-Nazi or white supremacist.”
WORDS HAVE MEANING — AND POWER
Let’s give a brief cheer for upholding a bedrock idea that words have meaning – and power. The meaning and power of words, fundamental to literature, communication and journalism, have rarely faced so many serious challenges, as has journalism itself. Simultaneously. We word-workers have been warned.
Social media is an enormous game-changer, one that we’ve scarcely managed to assimilate, as people around the world watched it play pivotal, unpredictable parts in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. It’s incredibly powerful when people themselves feel they must share what they’re witnessing and how they’re feeling, coping, trying to make sense of unfolding events.
Once upon a time, professionals with newsgathering organizations found witnesses and shared their on-the-spot interviews. That filtering and selection of viewpoints has vanished, yet its pale, flickering shadow still visible on much of what passes for mainstream TV news.
CELL PHONE VIDEOS
The near ubiquity of cell phones has turned everyday citizens into on-the-spot reporters, providing rawer, more compelling stories that most media. Capturing live police actions on cell phone cameras has upped the ante on evaluating interactions between citizens and police. At Standing Rock, camera-carrying drones provided stunning footage of people being drenched by water cannons in sub-freezing weather and assaulted with rubber bullets and shrapnel-producing grenades. Tribal reporters experienced electronic interference from drones flown above their camps with devices that blocked their video transmissions, jammed phone messages, and almost instantaneously drained their cell phone batteries.
Live-streaming videos capture and transmit what they see, unaltered, in real time, unlike photos that can be photo-shopped, edited or retouched. The instantaneous reporting power now in the hands of citizens is transforming –- perhaps escalating — police actions in tense situations.
We’re becoming increasingly aware of Fake News, stories deliberately manufactured and shared on the Internet, often disguised to look like legitimate news. The aim can be to create uncertainty, stir up trouble, or simply to make some cash. Who knew that creating fake news was a booming business in Veles, Macedonia, until the BBC reported it? Facebook, scrambling to curb the spread of fake news without crippling our freedom to share a full spectrum of ideas, is assembling a team of organizations that are volunteering their time to find a way through this bramble patch.
Meanwhile, ordinary folks are learning to be more thoughtful about the origins of what they’re sharing. For some guidance, try these 10 Questions.
Those who are concerned about the food they eat have learned to ask questions, find out about sources, and read labels carefully to know what they’re eating. Those who value actual news, or want to avoid sharing malicious rumors or falling for bogus, or frightening stories need to adopt similar vigilance about their media diets.
Meanwhile, now seems like a fine time to re-read Animal Farm.