How can we stop real news from resembling fake news?

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At least once a year, I make a pilgrimage across Route 2 west to the city of North Adams.

While these pilgrimages have often been for reconnecting with close friends and soaking in the radiant fall foliage, I had something to learn on my recent trip.

Enter Scott Dikkers, an original co-founder of The Onion, who was delivering the annual Hardman Lecture at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, my alma mater. He isn’t the typical choice to give a serious lecture on journalism, but that was the point.

“In a world that seems to make less and less sense, as time goes on, it makes sense that the newspaper of record should also not make sense,” Dikkers said at the opening of his talk.

Through a plethora of real examples of recent headlines Dikkers shared, it isn’t hard to see how much our news currently resembles the satirical publication. When I started down a path of journalism, I never imagined a sitting president would incite an insurrection on our nation’s capital, there would be a global pandemic, or that the governor of Florida would fly unwanted immigrants unannounced from his state to Martha’s Vineyard.

Our politics are more polarized than they’ve ever been and we’ve slowly lost the ability to communicate with one another in the process.

Dikkers said the rise of The Onion came around the same time as the rise of USA Today, one of the nation’s largest newspapers. USA Today’s parent company Gannett is also the largest publisher of local newspapers in the U.S.

But is USA Today to blame with its focus on news nuggets and a reliance on infotainment tactics as Dikkers would argue? In my opinion, we as a collective society should accept responsibility.

According to Pew Research Center, about 36% of Americans “regularly” get their news from Facebook — more than any other social media platform. Meanwhile, 53% of Americans admit they “sometimes” get their news from social media.

The blessing and the curse of social media is that everybody has a platform. While stories that would otherwise go overlooked can be amplified, it can also be a breeding ground for disinformation. Social media is a tool but should not be treated as gospel.

As we engage with algorithms on sites like Facebook, they begin to understand our preferences and curate information for us we are prone to agree with. When we receive positive attention on social media, our brain gives us dopamine, the same chemical we released when doing something pleasurable like eating a fantastic meal. The dopamine can make us feel euphoric and we crave more. It’s a problem Jaron Lanier, a pioneer behind virtual reality, details all too well in his book “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

Lanier contends that over time, these algorithms can also radicalize us and strip us of our ability to think critically. We no longer question where our information is coming from or what more there could be to a story. We just want our own beliefs to be reinforced.

As local newsrooms shrink and shutter across the country, we see a frightening trend of all politics becoming national. It used to be that all politics were local. The local level is where decisions are made on what is taught in our schools, how our roads and infrastructure is maintained, and how our emergency services are managed — among much more.

As one of my colleagues once told me, there are never two sides to a story. There’s probably more like 25 sides. In a good news organization, it is the job of a journalist to figure out what those sides are and discern who is credible in order to deliver good information.

Our jobs and our reputations depend on us getting the story right and being accountable when we are wrong.

In these times that make “less and less sense” it only makes sense that we need to reinforce news literacy and critical thinking skills so that we and the generations after us can evaluate information critically, especially when we’re being told something we’re not inclined to agree with.

Those of us working in this industry have a duty to give you news worth caring about. It is on us, to the best of our abilities, to have a newspaper that reflects our communities well.

The spirit of community journalism is embodied by the small team who work diligently on the Sentinel & Enterprise every day. For example, take the work of our full-time staff reporter Danielle Ray, who is prominently featured on our page one just about every day of the week.

Not only is she adept at finding stories worth telling and putting community at the forefront, she writes in a style that only she knows how to. People like her, in newsrooms all over the world, are unsung community heroes who often don’t get the recognition they deserve. They also rarely ever ask for it because they’re selfless.

If we want our news to stop resembling a satirical newspaper, it is going to take all of us. We need to make a conscious effort to reconsider where we get our information from and how we respond to the information we have. We need people to invest in their local newspapers so reporters can have the tools and support they need.

We also need more bold people who are willing to make the sacrifices that a career in journalism comes with. I am quickly becoming a tired, old man. The future belongs to the youth. I promise you, it is worth it.

Jacob Vitali is the city editor of the Sentinel & Enterprise. He studied Digital Media and Innovation at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. Email him at jvitali@lowellsun.com.

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