Water fountain “Blindenbrunnen” at the Garden for the Blind, Rheinaue, Bonn, Germany ©️Michael Sondermann/ Bundesstadt Bonn

During my weekly Chinese class, my teacher and I discussed a Chinese proverb called 瞎子摸象 (xiā zǐ mō xiàng). It literally translates as “blind man touching elephant” and encapsulates a well-known Asian folk tale of blind men gathered around an elephant. The first blind man holding on to a leg says “an elephant looks like a column”. “No way”, says the second one who touches the ear, “an elephant is like a fan”. “You’re both wrong”, says the one with his hands on the trunk, “an elephant definitely is like a tree branch”. “You’re clearly blind”, confirms the blind man touching the tail, “an elephant is like a rope” …. and so forth, you get the idea. Every situation has as many facets as people involved in it. Truth is a matter of perspective.

The image of the elephant and the blind men fed into my pondering of the public discussion about trust in the media. As newscaster, journalist and writer for the past 16 years my intent has always been to speak truthfully and with integrity. Thorough research, vetting of sources and mindfulness when expressing myself is my daily bread. This is why I have been troubled by the surge of distorted information and even more by how easily people seem to believe and act on them – see the British Referendum and the US elections.

Going back to my Chinese proverb, if every story has as many perspectives as people involved, then even a lie or fake story holds insights – if only insights on why someone made it up in the first place.

In the same vein, responsible journalism is only one facet of the issue around truth and fake news. It has been my observation that the truth value of responsibly reported news is diluted by the following 3 phenomena:

* What comes across as news may be veiled entertainment and/or PR. “Clickbait” with emotionally charged headlines and images is used to draw audience to websites selling content and services.

* The Internet of Things and constant interconnectedness through smart devices seem to have the effect of dissolving cultural barriers and taboos. Behaviour and communication that would be unacceptable face to face seem to thrive in a virtual reality and become normalised as they are amplified across the social media landscape.

*Both feed into the old political strategy ‘control the narrative’ and take it to the next level by sowing seeds of doubt with outrageous statements and “alternative facts”, thus undermining other reporting. A good example of how this strategy change distort people’s perception of the reality is “Gaslight”, a 1944 film with Ingrid Bergman adapted after a 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, which has coined the word “gaslighting”.

So how can we navigate the 24/7 stream of information and distill value from a story? How can we as recipient of news choose responsibly what we take in (just as each of us is responsible for eating well)?

The recommendations below are my personal approach. While each builds on the other, they are also interactive. Of course the list is by no means exhaustive.

1. Stand behind the short wall: Observe, don’t judge
We’re living in an era with constant competition and judgement but you can choose to side-step it. When you see, read or hear the news, no matter if on social media, tv or through a family member, see yourself stand behind a short wall to create a sense of detachment. Give yourself the time and the space to ponder what is presented to you.  As observer you remain in control and can choose if and how you want to respond, rather than being triggered.

2. Resonance: Read between the lines
Resonance is responding to what’s in between the lines, to the intent behind the story. Say you read a piece about refugees. How does it resonate with you? Which feelings come up? Does the piece stimulate fear within you or compassion? Is it uplifting or inducing a sense of heaviness? Or you watch a news program about an election campaign with different candidates. How does the program present each candidate? Does it show every candidate in a similar neutral light, or is there a bias for either of them? Your resonance will tell you much about your own triggers and help you discern the truth.

3. Discernment: Fine-tune your antennas
Discernment means “the ability to judge well” by training yourself to recognise nuances, qualities and patterns. Discernment is an ability that needs to be practiced and honed through observing, listening to your guts as well as doing your research. The more foot work you put in, the better the fine-tuning of your discernment antennas. Over time patterns emerge that seem almost like a language. The patterns may tie in with a specific source, content or occasion and indicate quality, authenticity and agenda of the piece. Just to give 2 examples: News items from a US source have a different style compared to news items written for a European audience. Economic data is sometimes packaged according to the political agenda of the writer.

4. Trust your guts: Then do your homework
If something sounds wrong, it probably is. That said, in our weird and wonderful world the impossible has become possible (see Brexit and US elections). It doesn’t mean your innate sense for truth is off. It just means a bit of homework is needed. So if the issue is of interest to you, verify the claims made in the piece you read or heard. As journalist under the roof of a global news organisation it was drilled into me that a scoop always needs to be verified through three credible independent sources. I still find it works for me.

5. Homework: Track the data
In order to verify claims made in an article, use data and information given such as links, names, numbers, locations and track them back to their source. Where else does this data appear online? Which sources have released them and who is responsible for curating the information How neutral and credible are they? How verifiable is the information? What is the long term experience with these sources and their information? For example, economic data released by the European central bank has come to be considered highly trust worthy. Its data gathering is transparent, results are published regularly and with clear announcements well ahead of time.

6. Look for balance: Truth has many aspects
Much like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, every story has as many facets as people involved with it. That includes not just the protagonists of the story but also the author, the editor, the readers etc. Reporting with integrity shows at least two, if not more, sides of the story and allows those who are part of it to contribute a comment. If they decline to contribute, a decent publication will mention that as well. Articles that only carry the one opinion of one person are exactly that – opinion pieces – and written to invite discussion, rather than to inform.

7. Change your sources: Variety adds to the picture
Constantly going back to the same source to get your daily feed of information is guaranteed to give you only one perspective of the world, much like one of the blind touching only one part of the elephant. To gain a fuller perspective on what’s going on in the world I highly recommend to tap into several sources at a time, especially if the topic is divisive. Take for example the recent decision by the US administration to place a temporary travel ban on immigration from certain countries. The ensuing protest carried by most media outlets seemed to reflect the opinion of the majority, yet after a few days reports and polls emerged showing that a surprising large percentage of the US population seemed to be in agreement with the ban as it made them feel safer.

What does all the above mean for the future of journalism and the media?

In 19841 Thomas Carlyle called the public press the “Fourth Estate” and considered it even more important than the other three branches of parliament. I think his observation is more valid than ever. The press creates a feedback loop between government and citizens. It informs and creates transparency. It stimulates discussion and exchange of opinions. It speaks truth to power. In our increasingly complex global landscape we need journalism more than ever to see all aspects of the elephant.

And let it be journalism with integrity. Let us be clear about the intention behind our output. Is the intention to inform, to entertain, to share an opinion? And we need to be mindful with our words. Words matter. Words create windows or walls. This is why I agree with my colleague Lara Satrakian who calls for a Hippocratic Oath for the news industry, a pledge to first do no harm.

May we always be mindful in our expressions and open to new perspectives.

Judith Bogner, 24 February 2017