How do we avoid “Fake News”?

October 2016

In September 2016 the non-partisan Pew Research Center conducted a survey among more than 4,000 members of its panel and found that ”…the vast majority of registered voters (83%) … think that it is the news media’s responsibility to fact-check political candidates and campaigns. Nearly two-thirds (65%) say it is a major responsibility, while just 16% think fact-checking is not at all a responsibility of the news media.”

While three quarters of Clinton supporters think that this is a “major responsibility,” a majority of Trump supporters (53%) agree.

If you’ve spent any time at all listening to experts on different sides of an issue discuss it, you know why so many voters want the media to do fact checking. We need more objective information to make decisions. I recently attended a spirited debate – two experts on either side — on the issue of recreational marijuana. I expected that the experience of those states that have already passed such laws would provide valuable guidance, but the experts had very different views of the nature of that experience!

Charter Schools are another issue on which I am confused. The opposing sides seem to be working with different sets of facts. How much money is actually taken out of the budget of the existing school systems? Do charter schools perform better than public schools? You’d think there would be more objective answers to these questions.

Unfortunately, this is not an easy problem to solve. “A new Pew Research Center report found that roughly eight-in-ten voters – including nearly equal shares of Clinton and Trump supporters – say the two sides cannot agree on the basic facts of important issues.”

So what’s to be done? I have a suggestion. Start a new fact-checking organization – or restructure one of the existing organizations – to create bi-partisan panels to fact-check each issue. Put representatives of each side on the panel and let them choose (by unanimous vote) experts who are not on either side.

Once set up, the panel can examine the issue and provide a list of facts they can agree on, as well as a list of facts on which the two sides do not agree, along with the opinion of the non-partisan experts as to which position seems more plausible.

In addition to those things, the panel should provide a list of facts for which there is not enough evidence to make a decision. They can then suggest what needs to be done to get that evidence. In some cases there may be no practical, cost-efficient way to do so and they should point those situations out.

This won’t solve all of our problems — the world is more complicated than ever – but it may give us useful information we can rely on, reduce our confusion, and (we can hope) lead to better decisions.

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