One of the biggest challenges journalists of every stripe and at every level are wrestling with is how to deal with rampant misinformation. And the consequences of failing to adequately address that issue have never been clearer.
My job is to accurately describe events and provide readers with all the tools they need to form their own opinions and make informed decisions about what’s happening in our community.
This always results in an inherent difficulty when accurately describing events means repeating obvious, harmful falsehoods that — just by repeating them — necessarily places them on the same level as evidence-based facts. Just by presenting, for example, the opinion of a flat-earther against that of an astronaut implies that the two “opinions” deserve some level of the same consideration.
However, when dangerously inaccurate information enters our local public discourse, as it increasingly has over the past year, simply omitting it or minimizing its prevalence in community discussions are also not viable solutions — to ignore that many of our friends and neighbors believe these lies and falsehoods would also be a failure in a journalistic mission to properly contextualize and describe events.
Since the events in Washington on Jan. 6, I’ve thought long and hard about how I’ve handled reporting on misinformation, and have changed how I’ll approach it in the future.
City Council reporting
In last week’s newspaper, the City Council story I wrote includes several accompanying fact checks. The reasoning behind this is to provide that proper description, while also pointing out the verifiable falsehoods on which much of the discourse has been predicated. Going forward, this is how I intend to approach such situations, though I welcome anyone who would like to send me an email with suggestions on how I might do it better.
But prior to last week’s City Council meeting, I have, especially in one particularly glaring case, failed in another part of properly informing readers: establishing the description of events in the proper context.
Ultimately, my obligation as a reporter is to the public at large, not to the individuals I cover. Rarely have I hesitated to ruffle feathers — perhaps even when it wasn’t exactly necessary — in the name of getting information I considered important additions to the accurate description of events in our community. Consequently, I’m sure that nearly every public official I’ve ever dealt with across Nodaway County has a strikingly similar suggestion about where I can shove my rather liberal and insistent interpretations of the Sunshine Laws.
Nevertheless, reporting accurately doesn’t require being mean to people just for the sake of it, and it doesn’t require leaving compassion by the wayside — I feel it’s deeply important to try and keep a baseline of kindness and human decency to others, not as a journalist, but as a person. And through observing the effort they put into serving the public, I know that every single one of those officials is working at maximum capacity to do what’s best for the community they care about in a largely thankless role that results in far more criticism than praise. So I try to be mindful of what appears in print, and how anyone’s actions or words I’m reporting on are portrayed, even if the accurate description of events results in an article that necessarily appears critical of their actions.
When about 20 residents, who organized through a Facebook group, attended the Dec. 15 City Council meeting, I described them as “members of a Facebook group who feel their voices are not represented on City Council.” This is technically accurate, but lacks crucial context, and I regret making the conscious decision to leave out that context.
Although many of the attendees were more curious than combative, and several seemed to leave the meeting having accepted the answers given by city officials to their questions, anyone who is not connected to social media — which perhaps isn’t so far out of the realm of possibility for the average print newspaper subscriber these days — would have had no idea of the actual context of this Facebook group’s general discourse.
To explain my thinking, I believed that simply ignoring the dangerous misinformation and hateful, reprehensible rhetoric that dominates the group’s discussions would both keep those opinions from getting more oxygen, and perhaps allow those who hold those opinions to be more receptive to the comprehensive, factual information I made every effort to include in my reporting. I told myself that by leaving out this context, there was a better chance that the general tone of public discussion would be improved because those who hold and disseminate these verifiably false opinions would be less offended.
I made the wrong decision.
Although made with the best of intentions, deliberately omitting that information from the story deprived readers of critical framing for not only the Dec. 15 discussions, but, it turned out, would have been important information to have going into last week’s City Council meeting that was much more confrontational and featured much more misinformation.
‘Civic minded’ discourse
One of the first posts to this Facebook group, formed in late November, featured two memes. One showed city officials’ faces superimposed onto a Cold War communist-style propaganda poster leading a “mask brigade” with the message “SUBMIT!” above their heads. The other mocked a City Council member for comparing not wearing a mask to the dangers of drunk driving — a comparison that turns out isn’t that comparable after all, only because COVID-19 has killed far more Missourians over the past 10 months than drunk driving has over the past 18 years.
That post was taken down, because the group was purporting to be a place — according to its description — for “civic minded” residents to come together in a “constructive, civilized way.”
But the memes are a representative sample of what would become the general tone of many group members’ posts.
One commenter said a council member was “obviously not mentally well enough to have a spot on the city council,” because of the drunk driving comparison. Many others frequently referred to one city official by a derogatory nickname, and one person delighted in the practice so much that they felt the need to post that they “love that people” call the official by the nickname.
The issues are by no means confined to the mask mandate or COVID-19 mitigation, however. Unfounded conspiracy theories abound throughout the posts in the group, from off-the-wall quick fixes for the water problems, to assertions that city officials are lining their pockets, to the city consistently lying in order to maintain “control” over the populace.
These are in addition to the bevy of posts that link to lies and falsehoods about the efficacy of masks, and how COVID-19 compares to the flu. Sadly, these are such familiar and tired lies that they don’t even register as anything close to abnormal anymore.
And as all hateful rhetoric does, some of the group’s discussions spiral inevitably toward Nazis.
One group member said that city officials had turned “local Police into ‘Brown shirts’ at retail outlets,” comparing the handing out of citations by Maryville Public Safety — of which there has been a grand total of one so far — to the muscle of the Nazi party that doled out savage beatings to Jews and political opponents on the streets of Germany in the 1920s and ’30s.
Another commenter said of those enforcement measures, “… it is feeling a bit ‘holocausty’ for me,” in this case, likening those same citations — again, of which there has been exactly one so far — to the systematic murder of more than six million Jews.
But when the heat of misinformation is applied, it eventually comes to a boil, and after comparisons of Nazis, the only step left to up the ante is threats of physical violence. This time the target was a student journalist who wrote an opinion piece not unlike this one for the Northwest Missourian after attending last week’s council meeting.
“Well the kid is just another mentally ill liberal piece of crap,” said a comment by a local business owner, commenting on a post that asked group members not to kick the journalist out just for expressing his opinion in public. “Id honestly like to get my hands on him. People need to start learning that when they talk (expletive) they get hit. World turned soft and they think they can say whatever they feel and get away with it. That time has came to an end.”
It didn’t end there, with the same commenter mocking those who called his threat what it was, doubling down by saying in a comment on a different post, “the threat is just beginning I promise….”
This is not some outsider who has put the cherry on top of this march towards increasingly dangerous and violent commentary, it’s a member of our community. A business owner. A father. A husband. And he is so incensed, so angry that a group of people in our community make decisions based on facts and evidence in order to try and save as many lives as they can, that he says openly he is ready to hurt someone who thinks the same way. And he’s not alone.
This escalation of rhetoric is not only antithetical to “civic minded” discourse, it’s unequivocally disgusting, reprehensible, counter to the American values we all share — and utterly, completely predictable.
And had I made a better decision last month, readers may have had a clearer picture of just why there was a “large police presence” at that December meeting, and perhaps a better understanding of why City Council members appeared visibly frustrated and exhausted by the constant stream of lies, misinformation and abuse that has been aimed at them and others under the guise of “civic minded” discourse.
Now, I harbor no delusions that simply pointing out this rampant, dangerous behavior and providing fact checks on information in the future will convince anyone who subscribes to this way of thinking that they should consider the possibility that their point of view has led them astray — led them to become the kinds of people who are OK with calling our fellow community members names, comparing their pandemic mitigation strategies to some of the worst crimes against humanity in the world’s history and threatening to physically harm them.
I fully expect to find myself the target of similar name calling, outrage and threats. But for too long, too many people — and I’m ashamed to say that I’ve come to realize I’m one of them — have allowed only a few of our community leaders to take the brunt of the abuse, even if it’s only because perhaps we thought in the end, it could lead to opening more minds to facts, evidence, respect and cooperation, and could be the most effective approach.
Ultimately, my feelings on the subject don’t matter, because my job is not to convince, and it’s not to make people feel good or bad about themselves, and it’s not to make my own life easier either.
It’s to accurately describe events and provide readers with all the tools they need to form their own opinions and make informed decisions about what’s happening in our community.
And this is what’s happening in our community.
Geoffrey Woehlk is a reporter at The Maryville Forum