Image: The Onion
PBS posted the following link on its Facebook page last week:
It was prefaced by the line: “We’ve been spoofed by The Onion!”
After a couple of comments lamenting what passes for reading among the kids these days, came this:
“This is apples and oranges. The endeavors are not equivalent. Watching a movie is mostly vicarious and can be little more than “Cliff Notes”. Reading demands engagement on all sorts of levels of internal activity. A movie for credit once in awhile, I think, is OK once in a while but cannot replace the act of reading.”
We can deduce a couple of significant things about this poster, identified only as K. With vocabulary like “equivalent,” “vicarious” and “engagement,” we can assume they’ve got some schooling and even some smarts under their belt. They don’t know what The Onion is. They don’t read all that carefully and can miss words like “spoof” in a sentence. And they have a quite rickety internal critic.
In terms of media and the citizenry, this is very bad news.
Did you click on the link? Read the story — it’s only 160 words long — and let’s talk about how this can happen, because the site I got the Facebook posting from, Literally Unbelievable, is filled with similar stuff. There are a lot of people who were recently amazed, for instance, by the discovery of a star in the middle of our solar system that was responsible for a big heat wave this past summer. There were even more, including Louisiana congressman John Fleming, who were apocalyptically appalled by news that Planned Parenthood had opened an $8-billion Abortionplex “that will allow the organization to terminate unborn lives with an efficiency never before thought possible.” There was also at least one person who may have thought, at least for a moment, that a 500-foot tall Osama Bin Laden had emerged from the sea to wreak havoc on America.
The most interesting thing about this site, owned and populated weekly by Hawaiian-born Oregonian Hudson Hongo, is that most of what appears on it is not rank idiocy, but variations on K., people who do not know how to tell if something’s probably true or false based on internal (not to mention external) evidence, and who obviously feel pummeled by so much real news they consider incomprehensible or ludicrous that one more, slightly more ludicrous story, doesn’t raise an alarm.
As I say, this is very bad news, because outside of religion and what we’re told by parents and friends, most of us develop a good portion of our worldview from news. And now that we don’t know nearly as much about the filters for our news as we did when we chose and paid for our daily paper, certain basic reality-discerning tools are more necessary than ever to avoid us making ridiculous fabrications, satirical or political, part of our worldview.
It doesn’t take an idiot to confuse reality and some of its simulacra. As clicks and spreadability become more and more a factor in online journalism, headlines are getting more and more intentionally outrageous. Take one that appears just beside “Scientists Trace Heat Wave To Massive Star At Center Of Solar System” on The Onion‘s page: “Saudi Journalist Arrested For Tweeting To Muhammad.” Ludicrous, but this one’s real, part of the paper’s regular American Voices gag that appends fictitious person-on-the-street reactions to actual headlines. (It’s about Hamza Kashgari, who was arrested and deported last week in Malaysia on his way to seeking asylum in New Zealand.) For another example (there are many), there’s a link to a story on the Atlantic Wire main page last week that reads: “FDA: Your Toothbrush May Be Out to Destroy You.”
That style of grabby headlines is one of the (many) things The Onion is spoofing. Straight headlines can be used as a sort of news précis: “100 Dead in Chilean Blast” gives you enough to say something to someone at the office without getting anything horribly wrong. But take this recent headline from the Washington Post: “Man seated next to crying child on plane in Vietnam opens door, deploys emergency slide.” If you didn’t read further, you might think a man had made a mad attempt to get away from a noisy kid. The story’s actually about a woman who asked a man to open the emergency exit so she and her crying child could avoid the long wait on the tarmac. It’s not a whole lot less wacky, but that is quite a different story.
I catch myself getting information from headlines all the time. There are so many sites, so many papers, so many links on Twitter and Facebook, I’m not going to read them all, not even all the ones that catch my attention. But with headlines getting less and less responsible in reaction to that very same proliferation, it behooves us more than ever to at least read the lede. That will save most of us from the most egregious misunderstandings.
Most of the posters lampooned on Literally Unbelievable likely didn’t read past the headline. But some self evidently did. This points out a problem that affects more than just the credulous bumpkins. The critical faculties of those who believe that any U.S. organization, let alone one with $8 billion to spend, would call something an Abortionplex are especially weak, but most of us have similar, if not quite so laughable chinks in our critical armour.
Sometimes, we get taken in by not noticing things that aren’t there, like someone correcting Councillor Di Giorgio when he says city bureaucrats have to do the bidding of Toronto’s non-executive mayor or be fired. Sometimes it’s not noticing things that are, like Nicholas Keung using the language of chattel to discuss Toronto nannies. Sometimes it’s holes in logic, like Jonathan Kay’s recent Toronto Life piece that tries to use the fact that once rich people spend most of their money, they don’t have much left as a reason they’re not so different from the 99 per cent. In mathematical terms, that’s like saying 1,000-950=50; 100-50=50, therefore 1,000=100.
Even if we did not know The Onion was a satirical paper, there would still be ways to figure out that their stories are not real. The tells in the Downton Abbey story, for instance, come in the putative education secretary quote, the “needless to say,” “basically” and “probably” what would never be used that way in actual government statements or interviews.
There are tells with Fox, too (often involving the words “patriotism” or “liberal”), and in the anti-Chinese government, Falun Gong-published Epoch Times, or the Globe and Mail for that matter. As we learned recently from the New York Times public editor, papers do not necessarily fact-check their interview subjects. And as we learned from Nicholas Keung and Jonathan Kay, reporters themselves sometimes fall into credibility gaps. As Literally Unbelievable‘s Hongo puts it: “As the news has become less monolithic, as dissenting and alternative resources have become available, you’d assume there’d be a convergence towards fact and correction, but it seems — to me at least — the opposite.”
Thankfully, he also has some simple advice, born of hundreds of hours researching our collective gullibility: “The biggest tip I could give is that if you really want it to be true, then especially make sure that it is.”