CNN’s Facts First Ad Highlights the Need for Transparency in Journalism

When powerful figures try to dissuade the public from learning the truth, facts matter. A new CNN ad attempts to make this point with fruit (yes, you read that correctly). “This is an apple,” text underneath a shiny red apple reads. As an image of an apple continues to show, the text and voiceover explain that, no matter how hard some people might try to convince you are looking at a banana, the fruit in question remains an apple.

The ad is obviously, and perhaps quite smartly, targeted at U.S. President Donald Trump. Since his days on the campaign trail, Trump has consistently made claims at odds with the truth. Daniel Dale, the Toronto Star’s Washington Correspondent, fact-checks Trump. The sheer number of inaccuracies is startling—most recently, Trump broke what Dale called “his one-week record for dishonesty,” making 57 false claims.

In a literal sense, there is nothing but the truth—our world is made up of scientific, real truths. But our own biases and perceptions may mean that we all have different truths, even when data tells us differently.

It is this that, in my mind, complicates CNN’s ad. Yes, the fruit in the image is an apple. But if enough people begin to say it is a banana, doesn’t it kind of become a banana? If everyone believes it is a banana, does it matter that it is really and truly classified as an apple?

In Trump’s presidency we’ve seen, for instance, him employ rhetoric insisting that Muslim people are dangerous and should not be allowed into the country. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter that the data shows that “more Americans have been killed by white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners,” as Vox reported. Trump says, over and over, that Muslim people are dangerous and pose a threat to American security—and despite the facts proving otherwise, some people believe him. We are looking at an apple, but some people are convinced it is a banana.

The premise of CNN’s ad is correct: facts matter. But more and more, we are seeing that they might not matter to an alarming number of people. As I’ve already written, emotions, biases and perceptions can impact what we believe to be true. That right-wing media on his side are further perpetuating incorrect ideas about Muslim people only helps Trump’s case in convincing people of something that is not true.

But while some of us see sites like Breitbart and InfoWars as those perpetrators of false ideas and stereotypes, it’s important to remember that many people see centre and more left-leaning media organizations in this way, too. No media organization is perfect. I think it’s crucial to remember the role that journalists and media played in helping to elect Trump; both by giving his rhetoric sensationalized coverage, and by overplaying stories about Hillary Clinton such as her email scandal.

Still, the fact remains that many people see CNN and other similar news organizations as—to borrow one of Trump’s favourite terms—“fake news.” CNN may be calling apples apples, but when a large number of people (influenced by powerful politicians and media outlets) believe those apples to be bananas, we have a severe disparity in opinions.

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This is an apple. Right? (Source)

I may just be a journalism student, but in my opinion, it’s no longer enough for media organizations to say, “This is the truth—this is an apple and you should believe us because we are honest and value facts.” Some level of public skepticism in journalism is healthy (it is, after all, an imperfect institution). However, a recent poll suggests that 46% of Americans believe Trump when he says that major news outlets make up stories about him. As journalists, we need to do more to show the public why they can trust us, instead of just stating that that trust should exist.

One way that I see this happening is by creating a culture of transparency in journalism. I see a lot of news organizations taking steps towards this already. The Toronto Star, for example, launched a “Trust Project” to take readers behind the scenes of the newspaper.

These articles from the Star show how certain reporters take on their responsibilities, and even things like how the paper chooses when to publish a breaking news story, how they write headlines and how they correct mistakes. It’s hard to call something from the Star “fake news” when you read about the actual processes they use to ensure accuracy. This model of writing about the inner workings of the paper is enlightening to readers.

More transparency about how journalism is done can show the public why they should trust journalists when we say that an apple is, in fact, an apple. This is all not to say that CNN’s apple campaign is for naught, however. The ad is engaging in its simplicity and, if this lengthy post shows anything, it is certainly a conversation starter about facts and public trust in journalism. I hope that we continue to have these conversations as both producers and consumers of the news, because CNN is right—no matter how many times someone screams “BANANA” at an apple, the truth matters.


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Is Liberty Dead?

“Is Truth Dead?” Time magazine asked on a recent cover, a clever nod to their 1966 “Is God Dead?” cover. I can’t imagine the words “Is Truth Dead?” boldly gracing a cover in any other year but this one. The events of Nov. 8, 2016, changed the course of the world dramatically, as did the months of campaigning that led up to that fateful night. Donald Trump’s victory made “Truth” into a buzzword—because suddenly, we were forced to consider the reality that there are often several shades of the truth.

Truth wasn’t the only concept distorted by Trump’s win and subsequent actions as president. Freedom, often symbolized by an-American bald eagle, has taken on a new meaning. Are American citizens truly free if the colour of their skin or the religion they practice makes them the target of a discriminatory travel ban? Equality is another word that has changed drastically; because while America’s founding fathers held the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, many of the words, actions, and policies of Trump’s administration are at direct odds with the very notion of equality.

There’s another word that I think has been missing in many discussions of Trump’s government: liberty, as in the inalienable right to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and also as in the statute of Liberty  (which, I may add, has seen a significant increase in visitors since Trump took office).

Maybe it’s just me, but “Liberty” hasn’t been as widely-discussed as some of the aforementioned words. Liberty is very similar to freedom, but the definition of the word liberty on its own struck me as having particular relevance to Trump’s administration. Liberty is, according to the trusty dictionary.com, “Freedom from arbitrary or despotic government or control.” Another definition: “Freedom from external or foreign rule; independence.” And another: “Freedom from control [or] interference.”

My mind jumped to Russia as I read those definitions. The investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia took a dramatic turn this week when former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn offered to testify about Russia in exchange for immunity. America is, of course, relatively autonomous; but the overwhelming evidence of links between Putin and Trump’s government makes me question just how free from foreign rule America really is, especially considering the Russian interference into the election. There is also evidence that some of Trump’s actions have been influenced by his businesses. For example, the first version of his travel ban excluded countries where he has business interests.

George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” So here is something that you may not want to hear: many of America’s traditional values are shifting, perhaps not for the better. If you value things like truth, freedom, equality, and liberty, then you need to speak up and fight for them to remain an essential and unwavering aspect of democracy. Because at the rate things are going, Time is going to have a field day with all of the “Is [insert important concept here] dead?” covers.


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Alternative Facts: Trump Versus the Truth

“All you have to do is write one true sentence,” Ernest Hemingway said. “Write the truest sentence you know.”

Once upon a time, this may have been easy. On the other hand, maybe it was never easy to write true words and to form true sentences. To write objectively about the truth becomes considerably easier when you know what the truth is. There are, naturally, some barriers to knowing the truth. Our own biases can prevent us from believing the truth, even if it’s right in front of us. And, of course, being presented with a truth in the first place requires someone else (or something else) to recognize that truth.

If you’ve been following politics at all over the last month or so, you’ll probably know where I’m headed with this. Two words, spoken almost a month ago and now so widely known that they have their own Wikipedia page, have had a tremendous impact on discussions of truth, lies, and everything in between. Because, apparently, there is something in between truth and lies: “Alternative facts.” These were the words Kellyanne Conway spoke in defence of Donald Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer two days after Trump’s Inauguration.

As writers, journalists, humans, how are we supposed to write the truest sentences we know, when it’s not even clear what is a fact and what is an alternative fact? Sometimes, it’s obvious what is true and what isn’t. But more and more these days, the lines are blurring. Let’s say that Trump says something that is false (can you imagine?). Many of his supporters may believe him. Many others may not. Some people believe that Trump is telling the truth, even if there is evidence which suggests otherwise.

In this scenario, which has been playing out on a daily basis, the truth sometimes gets lost. What facts can back up is no longer seen as the truth; rather, what plays to people’s ideological biases is what is seen as the truth. Trump’s Muslim-majority travel ban, though struck down by the courts, is a perfect example of this. Although people from the countries he targeted have killed zero people in America, fear-mongering, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have caused many Americans (some surveys say the majority of Americans) to support his ban.

If a group of people believe a false statement, it doesn’t automatically become true. If everyone in the world suddenly decided that the sky was green, the sky would still be blue, in a literal sense. But if everyone believed the sky was green, then the truth that it is actually blue wouldn’t matter because everyone had constructed their own reality to live in. Again, this is playing out on a frightening scale in America.

Fake facts are nothing new, relatively speaking. Google “Lies about vaccines” and you see multiple perspectives on mistruths; either that the vaccine industry, and the mainstream media, are lying about the benefits of vaccines, or that people who are anti-vaccine are lying. The facts each “side” of the policy debate use ultimately shape their movement’s views. This raises a question: Can there only be one set of correct, objective facts? Most mathematically-minded people would say yes. But this would mean that millions of people, in America and around the world, live their lives based on complete lies — and some of these people might not even care.

The truth about alternative facts is this: They’re not harmless statements that warrant laughter and a trending hashtag. Alternative facts are real symptoms of Trump’s war on the media, on democracy, on human rights. And they are real signs that his administration is not going to succumb to reason or facts, but rather continue to pick and choose information to suit their misguided needs.

This is what I believe. That, to me, these are true sentences. But what is frightening about all of this is that it seems like some of what Trump is saying is what Hemingway would call “the truest sentence he (Trump) knows.” He truly believes the things he says, and even if he doesn’t believe all of it, a quick glance at social media shows that a lot of his supporters believe him.

So, enough of alternative facts. Here’s a real one: as this week’s Time cover predicts, there is a storm coming — for America, and for Trump. Read the weather forecasts carefully. Truth no longer carries the weight Hemingway believed it did, or hoped it would. How can it, when so many people accept “alternative facts” as the truth?


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The Daydreamer Challenge Day Two: Meraki

My favourite thing about writing is that when I write, I can both lose myself and find myself. I can forget things as I am lost in the rhythm of tapping keys, and realize new things about myself as I read over what I have written or come to new conclusions as I write.

Ernest Hemingway said one of my favourite quotes about writing: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Sometimes I write to obscure a truth, but more often than not I write to reveal it. I’ve written a lot of sentences in my life, and I don’t think I’ve written “the truest one that I know” yet. One day, I will.

Reality has a way of disguising itself into fiction, and vice versa. I love writing fiction because as hard as I try to create something different than real life, reality always finds a way to sneak back in.

As I am writing this, I am noticing some contradictions. I write to lose myself, but also to find myself. Sometimes I write to obscure the truth, other times I write to find it. Reality can sometimes mirror fiction, but fiction can also mirror reality. I think there are always two contradictions at play; it just depends what perspective you have, and what you see.

Keep writing, and eventually it will get to where you want it. That’s the best advice I could give anyone looking to do anything in the field of writing. Keep writing for your blog, and eventually people will start reading it. Keep writing your book, and eventually you will finish it. Keep trying to write that one true sentence, and eventually you will.

I didn’t mention at the beginning of this post, but this is my second installment in the Daydreamer Challenge. Today’s prompt was to choose a word that describes you. My word is in the bolded letters of this post: meraki. Meraki is a verb which means “to do something with your soul, creativity, or love; when you leave a piece of yourself in your work.”

Shout out to Buzzfeed for teaching me this word!
Shout out to Buzzfeed for teaching me this amazing word!

It is always my goal to leave a piece of myself in my written work, and I would like to leave a mark on this world in this way as well. Because of these two things, I chose ‘meraki’ as my word to describe myself. What would you choose?