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The Reality of Living in a Post-Truth Era

At some point in the last three years I subscribed for daily briefings from The New York Times to be sent to me via email. In college I was finding it harder and harder to keep up with the ins and outs of the world without actively seeking out news. This email, I figured, would not only hand-deliver the news to me, but it would also allow me to view it at my leisure. As most ideas are, it was far more fruitful in thought than it was in reality. Before long, my attempt to become cultured simply involved me scrolling past the meaty stuff to the sports and entertainment blurbs tucked into the bottom of the email.

In our society, entertainment demands attention, and many people will go to great lengths to obtain attention for themselves or their ideas. Take these two things, sprinkle in a little cynicism and emotional appeal, mix it all up, and you are left with the current state of news media. Whether you call it fake news, deception, propaganda, or post-truth, this form of reporting by professionals and laymen alike is slowly but surely becoming our main source of information about the world around us. By valuing shock and awe over honesty, it seems that we are living in an era of post-truth.

It is easy to blame skepticism for this upward trend. Our culture fosters the questioning of authority figures and commonly accepted ideas. Movies, television, and literature often use the plot of a common citizen discovering the secrets of a well-known and respected person or group. It’s exciting, engaging, and possibly realistic. When people sit back and think about things that they are not privy to, a suspicion surfaces and a fact is questioned. This questioning effectively lessens the power of truth when uttered through typed or spoken word.

Similarly, we are plagued with the idea of biases existing in most every piece of information shared between people. Concepts like implicit bias point out some very important aspects of human nature, as the Project Implicit study at Harvard has shown us. But, just because these biases exist, does that mean we should question all that is presented to us based on them? At some point, we would assume fact to win the battle of the biases.

But today, fact no longer means what it used to. The reputation “fact” has held throughout the course of humanity is dipping greatly during the media cycle of this century. News, in particular, seems to value the shocking and extraordinary more than the true. When there is a need to compete with other sources of information, there is a push to raise the entertainment factor. Embellishment and dramatic flair can be justified by some who see the increase in readership or national attention as worth the compromise of the truth.

Thinking about the news media in this way makes them look like villains to the common people, spreading falsities and exaggerations to the masses. But perhaps they are simply being good marketers and, as hard to believe as it may be, giving the people what they want.

When something goes wrong in life, people have a tendency to look for an explanation. Something failing to turn out the way we expect makes it hard to accept reality for what it is. Facts that go against what we want to believe are hard to swallow. In these cases, the possibility of something as crazy or arbitrary as an explanation of why life failed to turn out exactly the way we expected it to makes it easier to accept reality. By this logic, the news seems to simply be echoing that which the people want to hear.  

And people—psychologically—want to be entertained.

News media is becoming a well-written fabrication of reality. Good and evil are starting to become defined based on the collective beliefs of the organization communicating the news. Events are pumped with drama, intrigue, and emotional resonance not only to come off as more interesting, but also to draw in a readership. In a society where plot twists are becoming the norm and Netflix is a verb, it is no surprise that we look for juicy news filled with emotional appeals, shocking revelations, and raw “truth.” These days, the same psychological appeal the entertainment industry has perfected over the years is being applied to the news. After all, given that people have fallen for the formula once, it is not shocking that this practice is working again.

However, the application from this method to the realm of reality implies deception—a deception that the news media heavily relies on. For example, think of the election. The same long, brutal, chippy election that seemed to last centuries instead of months. This election saw media constantly looking to undermine the candidates, pick them apart, and question their authority. With the addition of viral claims and improperly-checked facts, we saw passionate opinions and heated discussions on both sides that were manifested in one of the most controversial elections we’ve seen in years.

We the people fell for the drama of it.

At the beginning of each day as I prolong the time I spend in bed before inevitably getting up for class, I read The New York Times’ email. Often, I am struck by the headlines not only because of the bold print they are highlighted in. The words used, in particular the strength and emotion of them, catch me off guard as I casually scroll down my phone screen. They have the ability to make me feel something I hadn’t planned on feeling when I opened the email. I would lie if I said I didn't read these captivating pieces in full length, but in the back of my mind I can never help but wonder how much of it was written to entertain people like me instead of providing us with the truth.

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Ohio on the map, Boston in my heart. Just a shockingly pale girl who is emotionally overinvolved in sports, hummus, and sitcoms.