The importance of thinking, reading critically

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the website detailing the fictional endangered tree octopus was used by University of Connecticut researchers but was not created by them. The source of the website was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Back in the mid-2000s, in an effort to test the critical thinking skills of the digital generation, researchers from the University of Connecticut directed students to a website detailing the endangered tree octopus of the Pacific Northwest. The website was created in the late 1990s by a man named Lyle Zapato, “for the edification of those interested in regional cryptozoology,” he said in an email to The News.

The website included photoshopped pictures of the made-up animal, maps and graphics showing the range of its shrinking habitat, and more.

Students were then asked to write a paper about the animal. Without fail, each found their way to the made-up website (which still exists: zapatopi.net/treeoctopus) and used it as a source for their papers.

The most horrifying part? Students continued to insist on the animal’s existence even after researchers told them it didn’t exist.

You might be tempted to blame that on gullible, slothful millennials, but the truth is that people of every generation, even highly educated people, are allowing themselves to be duped online. And it appears to be caused by a lack of either ability or willingness to vet what they come across on the Web.

According to the Pew Research Center, 43% of people in 2016 got their news direct from Facebook. Pair that stat with a 2016 study by researchers from Italy, Boston University, and Princeton that found Facebook users are drawn not to facts, necessarily, but to information that aligns with their world view. They’re seeking reinforcement, not enlightenment.

Finally, stir into that rotten recipe another figure from Pew: At least 23% of people in 2016 had shared fabricated political stories on social media, either intentionally or by accident (read Pew’s full analysis on here: https://tinyurl.com/yym4c2mz).

What you get from that concoction is proof that at least a sizeable minority of our democracy never leaves their own bubble, even when that bubble is filled with misinformation and half-truths.

I’ve seen anecdotal evidence, myself. It’s pretty common for a reader to send me a vile email or call to yell about some fact I’d supposedly neglected in an article, only for me to pull up the story and direct them to the paragraph containing the supposedly absent facts. They’d obviously only read the headline visible in a Facebook post linking to my story.

I’ve often wondered, if they’re willing to take the step of calling me names and sometimes even threatening me when they don’t have all the facts, what else are they willing to do based on those half-truths? Vote? Boycott a store?

The sad irony is that the digital age should be a golden age of trust in the media. While I’m a nostalgic sucker for a printed paper, the Web makes reporting far more transparent. Reporters can and do post alongside their stories the very documents they source, the audio of their interviews, video of the events they cover.

Critics and skeptics may have scoffed, for example, when the New York Times broke a story on Monday, citing unnamed sources, that Robert Mueller had criticized William Barr’s earliest descriptions of the Russia investigation.

But, within a couple days, the Times, the Washington Post, CNN and other outlets had their hands on the letter and had printed it for everyone to read for themselves.

In short, readers have more opportunities than ever to see how newspapering is done and to check reporters’ work, which makes it all the more concerning that people still don’t absorb what they’re seeing.

I’ve seen hope, however.

As an education reporter at the Battle Creek Enquirer, I covered a government class at Lakeview High School in which the teacher focused his students on primary sources. He taught them about Martin Luther King Jr., for example, and gave them textbooks to read. But then he had them read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and dissect the textbook’s representation of what King had actually written. The kids were not merely memorizing the texts. They were learning to analyze and second-guess and comprehend the texts.

That’s a good lesson for digesting the news, I think.

Gauge an outlet’s credibility by looking at its past –has its reporting been proven right before? Gauge its credibility by whether other outlets are reporting similar things within the next few days. Does the outlet provide ways to access the primary sources, such as videos of events or speeches, audio of interviews, or embedded documents? Does it run corrections when its reporters make a mistake?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, that’s a good clue you’re onto a reliable source.

If the answer is no, take its reporting with a grain of salt.

And, please, read what the reporters wrote in its entirety before you decide to call and chew them out.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.