The Importance of Being Skeptical

Misleading MSM Coverage of Seattle CHOP Shows the Value of Skepticism

Photo by Jake Schumacher on Unsplash

We’re awash in misinformation about COVID-19, from viral YouTube videos featuring discredited scientists to Facebook posts planted by conservative groups, click-bait factories, and even Russia.

Just last week, an epidemiologist from Yale, Dr. Harvey Risch, penned an op-ed in Newsweek championing the controversial drug hydroxycloroquine as “the key to defeating COVID-19.”

Risch relies on older, shoddy, discredited studies to support his position while ignoring more recent, rigorous studies that prove hydroxycloroquine has no benefit and much risk for COVID-19 patients.

Yet he is an epidemiologist from freaking Yale, published in one of the world’s leading news magazines. In normal times, that would be enough to trust what he says, but now, evidently, we can’t rely on an author’s credentials or a publication’s reputation as a convenient short-hand for judging credibility.

So how do you defend yourself from false information that can manipulate your judgments and decisions, that can leave you wondering what’s true and whom to trust?

Healthy skepticism is one of the surest ways to recognize fake news, misleading reporting, or other types of misinformation.

If something seems too something to be true, then it probably isn’t true. Recognizing that something requires a certain amount of skepticism.

Case in point — a major mainstream media outlet used digitally altered images to misrepresent the Seattle CHOP protests:

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, the Seattle police withdrew from a six-block area after some conflicts with protesters, and then some of those protesters put up their own barricades and signage, creating a cop-free “capitol hill autonomous zone“ or “CHAZ.”

Later, it changed to “Capitol Hill Organized Protest” or “CHOP.” Eventually, police cleared the CHOP after two different shooting incidents.

Some media outlets depicted the CHAZ/CHOP as violent, dangerous anarchists taking over a city, extorting businesses for “protection,” and ID-checking residents traveling in and out of the area.

According to the people living and working there, however, the threatening anarchist “take-over” was more of an extended block party with sprinkles of protesting and a lot of late night music. The worst part was a lack of sleep.

When questioned about the altered, misleading images that it used to portray the CHOP as violent and threatening, the mainstream media organization removed the images.

However, the outlet …

How can a healthy skepticism help you fact-check misleading news? It alerts you to the something that doesn’t seem quite right.

Given how police responded to violent unrest in other cities, the idea of Seattle police responding to the kind of destruction depicted in the photoshopped images by withdrawing strains belief.

And in fact, the images came from Minneapolis, where police fought against the riots and the Minnesota governor called in the National Guard.

If something seems too outrageous, shocking, or confusing to believe, then most likely it is too outrageous, shocking, or confusing to be true.

But media outlet A says that one thing is happening, and media outlet B says something completely different. Which is true? Whom do you trust?

Trust yourself and your common sense.

If outlet A’s story seems unbelievable but outlet B’s story appears more reasonable, then B’s story is probably closer to the truth.The saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction” exists because of outliers, not norms.

What makes one story or depiction of events seem unbelievable while another story or depiction appears more reasonable?

Ask yourself, does this story square with what I know about similar situations? Does this story sound like the kind of reaction I’d expect from fellow human beings?

Given what we know about police response to the recent protests, riots, and looting in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the idea that Seattle police would cede six city blocks to armed anarchists who are shaking down locals just doesn’t square with everything else we’ve observed from police nationwide.

If one media outlet presents version X of the story and three other media outlets present version Y, then the Y version is probably more accurate.

It’s possible that the one media outlet has a “scoop” or some unique insight, but far more often, we should be wary of an outrageous story that’s reported by a single outlet and not quickly corroborated and reported by other outlets.

When multiple sources report the same story in a similar way, then you’re on the right track to being well-informed. That depiction has been vetted and corroborated by multiple reporters, editors, and sources. The wider you read, the more likely you’re getting the full picture.

Third, check for inconsistencies internal to the media outlet presenting the outrageous or outlier version of the story.

Internal inconsistencies and problems like this:

As you can see, the same image of a masked, armored man with an assault rifle has been photoshopped into three different real-life scenes. That’s as misleading as it gets.

When a news article so blatantly misrepresents details, you should be skeptical of anything and everything the author or organization says in the future.

I blacked out and avoided naming the news network who presented these misleading, photoshopped images because I didn’t want to prejudice your reaction to my analysis of this example and how it illustrates the importance of a healthy skepticism.

Ready for the big reveal? Scroll a bit.

We have to nurture a healthy skepticism toward outrageous stories whose depictions don’t fit our understanding of similar events and situations, that violate common sense expectations for the reactions of fellow human beings, and that aren’t corroborated by other sources.

If we trust everything a given news outlet says, we risk allowing ourselves to be deceived.

If we don’t hold news organizations accountable, especially the #1 news network on cable with a highly trafficked website, then we allow millions to be manipulated.

It starts with you and me, I argue. We have to be skeptical enough to not be taken in. Then we need to help others become more skeptical, too.

And that’s partly what I’m doing at www.ericsentell.com.

Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker. Learn more at www.EricSentell.com.

Writer tackling faith, politics, relationships, writing, media, & other impolite topics. College Teacher. Podcaster. My newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/yy7znuy8

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