I subscribe to more papers than I could or would read. I subscribe to four Maryland papers, including two local ones (The Talbot Spy and The Star Democrat), two Florida papers, The Washington Post, The New York Times, several investigative magazines, PBS Frontline, and I also make an annual donation to Wikipedia.
A waste one would think. But not to me, I consider it a donation to democracy. Because it is no secret that unbiased news is in financial difficulty.
Even if I wanted to read all of these papers, most are online and are harder to navigate. During my newsprint days, my husband and I would pour over The New York Times on Saturday and Sunday. (In New Jersey, we got features such as the Book Review, NYT Magazine, crossword puzzles on Saturday, and the time sensitive sections on Sunday.) The jump to online has made it less likely that I will meander through the newspaper and discover articles that an online search might miss.
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The only security of all is in a free press.” Yet, in my opinion, investigative journalism in newspapers and documentaries is much more important than a free press. Free press enables biased media to report fictious events and theories such as wackadoodle conspiracy theories, like the faked moon landing. Fox News commentators admitted in depositions that they aided and abetted the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen despite knowing that the 2020 election was fair.
And that is why I believe that unbiased investigative journalism is so critical. The list of issues that have been exposed is exemplary: Ida Tarbell who exposed the Standard Oil monopoly; exposés on child abuse in the Catholic Church; abuse in the judicial system; fraud and corruption in government; the dangers of drinking water in Flint, Michigan; and uncovering the horrors of Jim Crow; all of these stories have exposed weak flanks in our Democratic (and religious) institutions. They have enabled us to make necessary corrections. If not for investigative journalism, these abuses might have remained hidden.
The need to report unbiased, independent news is more critical today than any other time. Sadly, the Internet has become a primary source of misinformation and crazy conspiracy theories (e.g., Antifa—that Democrats are eating and selling children). And unfortunately, there is no end in sight. Fictitious stories, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and uninformed opinions threaten the core of our democracy.
Why do we pay attention to them? Because doing our own research is time-consuming and complex. Instead, we rely on our favorite “experts.” And no one is immune. When I was actively volunteering in animal rescue, I parroted the common narrative that black dogs are the least likely dogs to get adopted. But it wasn’t true. A journalist decided to investigate this theory and discovered that it was merely someone’s conjecture that had been repeated enough times to become “fact.”
Sadly, it is human nature to seek out simpler stories and rely on single sources for information. These stories are more interesting, more salacious, and easier to grasp. Let’s face it, stories of conjoined alien twins in the National Inquirer are easier to understand than the Star Democrat’s reporting of Lynn Mielke’s excellent summary of the controversies surrounding the Lakeside sewer map. But I ask you, which is more important?
Our desire to read stories of alien abductions, Hollywood divorces, conspiracies, and salacious gossip over more complex, factually based reporting, is in our genetics. Daniel Kahneman wrote Thinking Fast and Slow to explain how our “fast brain” hijacks the slower, meticulous analytic brain. In his summary of decades of psychological research, Kahneman illustrated how we effectively use two brains…one that quickly assesses a threat and absorbs knowledge and the other that meticulously analyzes the data. Most of the time we use the former. And that leads to an overconfidence that convinces us that our decisions are well-informed.
In actuality, we make errors both gathering and evaluating data. We ignore data that we don’t want and overweight data that we agree with. Errors and biases in both judgment and analyses of incomplete data results in poor decision making.
Kahneman is right, our brains are more interested in serial killers than an investigation into the merits of bail for misdemeanor offenses. It takes an effort to learn both sides.
When our democracy was first formed, its novelty made voters pay attention. It was important to be educated about events to ensure that our democracy survived. Citizens attended debates lasting for hours, listened to long speeches, and kept apprised of events through publications. Yet, due to difficulties with transportation to polling stations, voter turnout did not peak until the mid-1800s. At that time, voter turnout hovered around 80% and remained high until the 1920s. The 2020 election saw a 67% voter turnout, the largest since 1960.
America has been a democracy for almost 250 years, and until January 6, 2021, most of us took the institution for granted. We now recognize that some voters get their information from social media, where unbiased, accurate information is in short supply. On social media, facts are malleable and inconvenient facts are dismissed as “fake news.”.
“Trump isn’t the first wannabe dictator who accused the press of being fake news and the enemy of the people. Hitler called the press Lügenpresse, German for fake news.” Oliver Markus Malloy
When Al Gore conceded the election (even though he won the popular vote and most agree he won the electoral college), he recognized that democracy was more important than his ambitions. Trump did not. The events of January 6th made us all aware of how tenuous our democracy actually is.
But as long as there is unbiased, investigative journalism, maybe our democratic government stands a chance.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.