Constructive discussions: establishing truth

This Information Age thing is difficult to deal with. It's like trying to drink from a firehose. It's hard to remember, but it wasn't always like this. Think back to how you dealt with life in 1990 without being able to find information on a whim. I remember hating to drive somewhere new because I'm blessed with a terrible sense of direction. With Google Maps on my Treo and then on my iPhone, I don't have to worry.

But all this information carries responsibility with it. In the "old" days, we paid people to sift through information and to present it to us. They were called Journalists. News itself was The Source, and it was a big deal when one news source disagreed with another on facts or interpretation. Constant availability of information has shifted that responsibility to each of us.

So what does that responsibility look like?


Journalists are trained to triangulate various news sources, to judge the bias of each and to sense when there might be more to the story. They are also trained to communicate their findings in a clear and unbiased way. For more on journalism as it relates to each of us now, see the Professional and ethical standards section on Wikipedia.

There is obviously a lot of depth to journalism, but the above section demonstrates the type of training journalists are supposed to receive.

Peer Review

Once a journalist has collected sources, synthesized them into a coherent whole and written a piece, he/she brings it to the news organization for comment. This is an incredibly important step, and is an important reason why major news organizations still exist. People trained in the profession, and able to gauge the accuracy or bias of a piece, provide oversight, guiding it toward further objectivity.


Once the piece is published, it's open for comment from all sides. If it was reasoned, clear and unbiased, it tends to generate discussion rather than mudslinging. If errors are exposed, the new organization can respond, publish updates or edits and continue the discussion or move on.

Watching people attempt to express themselves during this campaign has highlighted the enormous problem most of us have in understanding all this information, and especially of gauging the truth of it. Innuendo, unsubstantiated rumors and intentional slander under the guise of "truth" rule the day. And at the bottom of it all is the plaintive cry "how can I know it's true?"

So what's the answer? How do we know it's true?

Understand Your Own Goal

Do you want a better America, or are you simply angry? Are you willing to listen as much as talk? This is hard work. It means being aware of your own biases before responding in anger. As in life, the goal should be to understand the people you're living with, not to convince them how stupid they are.

Talk to People, not Words

It's very easy to fire off a response in email or a blog comment; the consequences of being impolite or even obnoxious are far lower online than in the real world. Try to visualize the person behind the words, and your may find that you begin to see things you hadn't noticed before.

Look for the Human Situation

Some people are not talented writers. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask for clarification. Some people are genuinely angry for very good reason but may have valid points behind the anger. Showing interest might be exactly what the person was looking for in the first place.

However, some people really are hateful. Call it for what it is, but if you do, be prepared to be vilified. In some cases, it's better to ignore.

Triangulate Sources

Major human issues are complex. Just because a particular article is clear, has sources and looks 100% true does not make it so, even if it's coming from a high-profile, trusted news source like the NY Times. Review other pieces written by the author: is he/she always balanced? is he/she willing to listen and grow over time? This process is also difficult and takes time. But stick with it, and you'll discover it takes less time as you get better and you'll also learn about the biases of various news sources. Again, remember your goal.

Look for Original Sources

Read the Professional and ethical standards section again. The first point is the most important: use original sources of people who were there. In this economic downturn, find sources that interview the architects. Read the actual laws in question yourself -- it's okay, they're written in English.

Decide What You're Going to Do

From the original sources, find opinion pieces and compare the opinions to the facts you now know. How accurate are they really? Does the opinion open new doors you hadn't considered? Or is it clearly not worth listening to? If it's clearly biased and full of venom, DON'T SEND IT TO ANYONE. Ignore it. Please do not contribute further to the clutter.

Yes, this is hard work. Yes, we all have less time than we used to, despite the promise of technology. However, the risks of continuing our slide into incoherence are nothing short of the loss of our nation.

Oh, and one more thing. Ask yourself what I personally know about journalism. Ask me if I went to journalism school. Draw your own conclusions.