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High School Essay Contest Winners Chosen

04 Mar 2018 7:21 PM | Tammy Fagley (Administrator)

Below you will find the winning essay from the 2017 League high school essay contest.  Enjoy:

Searching for Real News

In mid-November, the controversy erupted.  First one, then two, then six women accused Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexual misconduct — including sexual assault of teenage girls.  Given the political climate, media sources’ viewpoints depended on partisan leanings.  Liberal media outlets took the accusers’ claims seriously; sources that are more conservative tended to accept the claims; however, the Moore campaign and ultra-conservative media sources vehemently denied everything.  Which sources are telling the truth?

The facts suggest that Moore’s denials are untrue; the preponderance of accusers implies that his actions were a habit.  The stories of his misconduct are also consistent over time: In the 1980s, a mall banned Moore because it knew about his behavior.  Besides, the media put effort into verifying the allegations.  Around the same time as the news first broke, another woman approached The Washington Post, claiming to have been molested by Moore.  Nevertheless, when the Post investigated her claims, they found inconsistencies.  Eventually, reporters found out that she belonged to an anti-mainstream-media organization attempting to execute a sting operation.  To me, this event disproves the Moore campaign's claims that the Post was creating fake news.  If the newspaper were only interested in attacking the Moore campaign, it would have published the false allegations in a heartbeat.

Citizens usually lack time to conduct a thorough investigation, illustrated above.  As a general rule of thumb, mainstream news sources tend to be more trustworthy.  They have more resources than fringe platforms, enabling more thorough fact checking.  By definition, mainstream sources must appeal to a wide swath of Americans, so they tend to hold more moderate viewpoints.  Ideology is more likely to cloud the judgment of sources that lack a large reader base.  However, television channels don't have this luxury, as the public expects the to report on events in real time.  Not only do they have less time to check facts, but media sources such as Fox and CNN must deliver new news constantly.  As a result, they may stretch the facts by constantly trying to find another attractive angle.

For these reasons, I avoid televised news.  Instead, I read the New York Times and listen to NPR.  I trust NPR — which receives government funding, which suggests that it is moderate — to be objective.  For instance, it covered the sexual harassment scandals surrounding both Moore and Democratic senator Al Franken.  Of course, NPR has a reputation as liberal, so fewer Republicans choose to be interviewed by it than Democrats (as I have noticed), creating a more left-wing impression.  This feedback loop could potentially create an echo chamber in the future, but not now.  I rely on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times to provide insightful investigative reporting, but I realize that the editorial board skews liberal.  From time to time, I watch late-night talk shows, such as Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show.  I would like to think that I can laugh at how these shows mock the news without absorbing their political biases.  But in reality, these shows are pulling me leftwards.  Still, as nearly none of my news comes from the Internet, I don’t believe that I am exposed to fake news.

But no one thinks that their news is fake news.  However, the amount of contradictory news on the Internet suggests that a significant fraction of Americans are receiving falsehoods but believe that the other side is lying.  Unlike the rest of the party, Alabama Republicans have generally not condemned Moore; they seem to be operating with a different set of facts than the National GOP leadership.  How can anyone be sure that his or her news is real?

It’s not easy.  In fact, if citizens cannot accept that reality may contradict their cherished beliefs, they will not be able to distinguish fake news from real.  However, for those of us who can doubt ourselves, we must examine our sources.  Do they consistently attack one party or group?  Do the opinions of the editorial board seep over into the newspaper’s reporting?  Have newscasters ever warped the truth, contrary to the Society of Professional Journalists’ guidelines?  Does the source identify conservatives as conservatives but not identify liberals as liberal, or vice versa?  If you can answer yes to any of those questions, dig deeper.  Choose a controversial issue and evaluate how your sources treat the issue.  Does their information come from reporting based on multiple, credible sources or a political party’s talking points?  Is the source ignoring certain viewpoints on this issue?  A source that survives these tests is credible — for now.  As political realities change, so do the viewpoints of organizations.

Is this balancing act ideal for a democracy?  Has the First Amendment gone too far in protecting the right to publish falsehoods?  In theory, a government that wanted to ensure that its citizens remained informed could tighten restrictions on free speech.  However, such actions lead to a slippery slope.  A political party in power would be sorely tempted to regulate opposition friendly media out of existence.  The Adams administration used the Alien and Sedition Acts to imprison Democratic-Republicans (that is, anti-Adams) editors.  Perhaps Congress could fund a nonpartisan organization that exposes lies — such as Politifact or Snopes.  Still, the government should not do our thinking for us; otherwise, we risk becoming an Orwellian society where truth loses meaning.  The people can and should take responsibility for finding the truth.  The truth is out there — and we should settle for nothing less from the fourth estate and from our elected public officials in American government.

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