Vander Graaff: In dire situations, facts need to come first

Abby Vander

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Recently, Colorado has shifted from a stay-at-home order to a safer-at-home policy, which allows some nonessential businesses to reopen and essentially shifts social distancing from a requirement to a strong recommendation. 

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In this scenario, those who are not economically forced to return to work or engage in social activities are left at a crossroads; they must navigate the ethical and moral dilemma of reopening the economy and possibly spreading the virus or maintaining a lockdown that has left people with minimal financial resources. 

We might not have much say over the media that is presented to us, but we can control the way in which we consume and understand new information.”

In a situation as complex as this one, we should be considering many different creative, interdisciplinary solutions. Instead, the divisions within our political system have forced us to take sides, which often means only acknowledging the information that defends our opinion while dismissing the rest.

But solutions should be more important than political differences. We might not have much say over the media that is presented to us, but we can control the way in which we consume and understand new information. 

In the midst of global hysteria, it can be hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. Does hot weather help make the virus go away? Can you get the coronavirus from the bottoms of your shoes or from a mailing envelope? What about from your 5G mobile network

While many COVID-19 related myths have been discounted, with new information coming out every day, claims can be hard to sift through. Besides that, consuming massive amounts of information on death, financial hardship and racial injustice is exhausting — especially when many of us might not know where to turn for reliable information anymore. 

In school we learn the basics of finding reliable information: Check information against multiple sources, be wary of websites you’ve never heard of and look for academic credentials. 

Old Town parking, which shoppers fought over just a month ago, remains empty after The Centers for Disease Control recommended nonessential workers stay in their homes. (Lauryn Bolz | The Collegian)

But currently, the lines are blurred. There are a million different ideologies and values that will influence each individual’s opinion on how to proceed in this situation, and these values have often fallen along party lines.

Some right-wing political figures advocate for reopening the economy and accuse the mainstream media of bias and false reporting. It seems that politicians do this not as an academic criticism, but as a way to delegitimize information that could put their power in jeopardy. 

Blatant distrust of the media and attempts at censorship can be incredibly harmful, especially in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic when people can die as a result of misinformation.

But it’s also important to note that these claims wouldn’t gain traction if there wasn’t some truth behind them. Even publications that are famous for their quality have made biased decisions in how they choose to share information. 

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Take The New York Times’ coverage of sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh versus their coverage of allegations against Joe Biden. Although they defended their actions, the fact remains that the Kavanaugh story was covered quickly and thoroughly, but the Biden story was not published for 19 days, leaving many to question whether or not the coverage was unbiased.

So yes, we should consider the motives behind the pieces we read. Bias is an inherent part of human nature, no matter what journalists do to try and avoid it. Even with sources that are deemed reliable, part of being an active reader is questioning the work itself. You are responsible for analyzing how its specific presentation of information will impact your understanding of that information.

Social media can be a powerful tool to counteract the mainstream media or leak information that the media has chosen to ignore. When The New York Times failed to report on Biden, Twitter spoke out about it. This past year, social media was central to the #NotProudToBe movement, when many students felt The Collegian and the University weren’t covering the blackface situation sufficiently.

Social media posts can be important and thought provoking. They have the unique power to bring neglected voices to light, and they can provide us with information on perspectives and motives that may not be shared by a publication.

But social media should supplement rather than replace news publications or institutions like the World Health Organization and The Centers for Disease Control.

Newspapers provide a source of information that can’t be found elsewhere. Institutions are more likely to share statistics and sensitive information with journalists than with prying members of the general public because they have business relationships with these individuals.

We need to recognize the ways in which our partisan views and consumption of information impact our views on social distancing and stay-at-home orders. we need to rely on fact rather than party.”

Unlike social media platforms, respectable newspapers have fail-safes in order to avoid bias as much as possible. Good journalists are trained in ethics: They seek truth and report it in a manner that will not cause harm to others. Their work is edited by members of an institution with these values, which gives them credibility.

Fact-checking and the spread of reliable information is crucial, especially when false information is coming not only from social media, but also from authorities.

Just as there is a difference between making an educated hypothesis as a researcher and blindly stating falsities, there is a difference between a CDC webpage about disinfecting surfaces and a meme about disinfecting surfaces created on Facebook.

In many ways, the way we choose to take in information alters our reality. The misinformation out there in the world gives us an excuse to only accept the facts that suit us. The dangerous part about this is that we then form our values and opinions around only these specific pieces of information — or misinformation. 

The same is true when we share information with others. It is important to have discussions that are grounded in facts backed up by reliable sources rather than spreading misinformation or arguing with logical fallacies.

Before you make a decision on going out when it’s not necessary, ask yourself two questions: Are you tired of social distancing because you really think the virus is going away or because it feels uncomfortable given our cultural norms of frequent social contact and freedom to do whatever we please whenever we please? Have you considered any alternative solutions to the economic problems we face?

In our current world, the decisions we make will be the difference between life and death, if not for ourselves, then for our friends, neighbors and loved ones. We need to recognize the ways in which our partisan views and consumption of information impact our views on social distancing and stay-at-home orders. We need to rely on fact rather than party.

Abby Vander Graaff can be reached at letters@collegian.com or Twitter @abbym_vg.