Opinion journalism keeps the lights on. But at what cost?

Opinion is more compelling than fact. That's tearing society apart.

ALICE DREGER: It's important for us to know what's real in the world and if we're going to be making decisions about our own lives or about healthcare policy, environmental policy, what to eat, what to do in terms of medications, we need to know what reality is – that way we're not constantly smacking ourselves up against it.

It is true, certainly in politics, that it can be very difficult to get people to agree on basic facts, but I think it is possible in some circumstances to basically turn to scholars and experts in fields and ask them to try to help adjudicate what is real and what is false. And increasingly, because of the polarization within politics, there are more and more think tanks that are on both the right and the left that are actually very serious about facts because they're worried about this kind of denigration into a situation where everybody just believes what they want to believe. I think we're about to see a big corrective. I mean the fact that you're even asking these questions suggests to me that we're seeing a corrective where people are interested in trying to get closer to reality. And I actually see that on the right as well, within scholarship that is right of center, within foundations that are right of center. There certainly are some on both extremes that are interested just yelling their idea, whether or not it's real, there are various people who come to mind, but there's more and more interest in trying to do the corrective and trying to understand what's serious and real.

We see this, for example, with conservatives becoming very concerned around climate change. We see this I think on the left with regard to people who have historically said patients should have full autonomy, beginning to think about well what does that mean when patients have false knowledge when, for example, they think the measles vaccine is very dangerous when science suggests that it is not very dangerous? When they think that doing placenta treatments on their skin is somehow important and safe and scientific when it's really not. So I think that corrective is helping. How do we as individuals understand what is true? It is really hard. There is so much noise and there is so many things that look convincing that are not convincing. That's a relatively new thing in history to have the level at which people are able to produce things that look real and high level, high quality, high scholarly levels that are not real is kind of terrifying. So there are fake journals that look real, there are fake news stories, as we know, that appear to be real and it becomes increasingly difficult to understand what is real.

For the average person, it's very hard to know what to trust, but there are some trusted places like, for example, Wikipedia, Snopes, various places that do fact checking. There are various newspapers that do fact checking as well, factcheck.org for example is another place. But then in order for those places to survive it's really clear that people have to financially support them so that people can do that work and it's hard to convince people to support nonpartisan fact checking work because people have been taught to favor, with their clicks and their dollars and their like buttons, to favor opinion that they agree with. It's very rare for people comparatively to forward actual articles compared to forwarding opinion pieces. So what we see is that the kinds of things that come under your nose because your friends are sharing it or your colleagues are sharing it is much more often opinion than facts. We don't have the idea that we should stick a like on something that's just factual, forward it to a friend if it's simply factual. We want the opinion analysis of it that agrees with our opinion of what the facts mean and that's the thing we forward. And I don't know how to solve that problem other than to say if people with money don't start supporting fact-checking systems then fact-checking systems will become increasingly rarer.

So the newspaper I run in East Lansing does political fact checking. When the mailers come out for the latest local campaign, whether that's for city council or for school board or for various tax proposals we take the mailers and we do fact checking. This is not a novel concept, newspapers have been doing this for years, but it's increasingly unusual for mainstream newspapers to take the time to do that kind of fact checking, especially on the candidates they're endorsing. It's one reason we don't endorse candidates at my newspaper because we believe very firmly that that's not our job. Our job is not to tell people what to think, our job is to bring forward what we know. And, in the past, newspapers had more of a commitment to that, but that's not where the money is. When people subscribe to newspapers they do it not for the information, they do it often because of the opinion pages, because of the op-ed pages, because of the editorials. So newspapers are stuck in the position where that's what they have to do in order to support the news side of the organization.

  • Basic facts are up for debate, especially in the realm of science and politics. So which facts can you trust? Start by looking at trusted sources like Wikipedia, Snopes, and factcheck.org.
  • "If people with money don't start supporting fact-checking systems then fact-checking systems will become increasingly rarer," says Dreger.
  • Digital audiences are in the habit of sharing and reposting op-eds that agree with their existing opinions, rather than seeking out factual reporting. Opinion journalism makes money. Factual reporting makes less. That's a problem.

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