Recently I saw that forty percent of Americans believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. This brought a favorite Thomas Jefferson quotation to mind.
“If a Nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be...if we are to guard against ignorance and remain free,it is the responsibility of every American to be informed.”
Are there many people in the Roanoke Valley who really believe that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq? I am puzzled by how people can be so unconnected with current events to hold on to that notion. Is there perhaps an alternate reality out there that I am unaware of? Certainly anyone reading The Roanoke Times, one of the national newspapers, or listening to network news should have picked up this fact by now.
It is easy for each of us to have different ideas on whether or not the invasion into Iraq was a mistake or something that had to be done. We can have opinions on whether or not it has made us as a country safer or more at risk. Surely, however, we can agree on one fact, there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq.
With the polarization of everything, are people losing the distinction between fact and opinion? In the rush to corroborate our opinions are we becoming slipshod in how we check our facts? Articles both in print and digital medium that are a little lax on fact checking or even in vetting their sources are not hard to find.
Just before the holidays an article was published in the Roanoke Times. It happened to be in my field of expertise, technology. I felt the article which was not on the opinion pages was off base on a few points so I attempted to engage the author to see if perhaps he was just unaware of some of the facts.
It was interesting in that when he finally responded his answer was that he did not have time for a debate and stood by the points he had made. It reminded me so much of the old saying, “Don't confuse me with the facts. I have already made up my mind.”
Certainly we live in an age overwhelmed with information, but that makes it all the more important that each us not only learn the skills of critical thinking but that we also pass it on to our children. We also need to demand that our newspapers carefully monitor for objectivity and correctness of facts the articles that they publish. In general I believe The Roanoke Times does a very good job, and perhaps this article being an exception to the rule is why it has bothered me so much.
While an article on technology might not be as important as an article on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the relevance of getting the facts right is just as important. If I were a technology executive visiting Roanoke for the first time, and I happened to read an inaccurate article, my opinion of Roanoke would be colored. If the article happened to be the recent one that concerned me, the conclusion could be made that Roanoke had missed about five years of what has happened in the technology world along with the thought that Roanoke just might not be the smart place to start or move my company.
The printed word has a great power and with the power comes responsibility. I was fortunate to spend summers of my teenage years sometimes in the company of R.J. Berrier. R.J. spent over fifty years writing and editing pieces for the small newspapers in Mount Airy, N.C. His commitment to correctness and facts was one of his core beliefs. As he often told me, "Most people only have the opportunity to be in the newspaper three or four times in their lives, when they are born, when they graduate from high school, if they marry, and when they die, so it our responsibility to make certain that we spell their names right and get the facts straight."
At a time when there is so much misinformation and polarization in the world, I still depend on the R.J.'s of today to make certain the printed word that I read each morning has more credibility than what I might find wandering the Internet.
Our local paper is my real connection to the world. It is my first step to staying informed each day. It is also “our” paper because it is our responsibility to challenge articles when they get the facts wrong.
If we all make a renewed commitment to carefully checking our facts while preparing for a respectful debate of differing opinions, the process can lead to a more tolerant and successful future for all.
Maybe we can even figure out the next step in Iraq if we start by agreeing on the one fact, that no one found any weapons of mass destruction.