Last week I was asked to speak to a couple of Grade 7 Language Arts classes about my work in journalism.
It was a pleasant surprise that students were being taught how to write opinion pieces and news stories and learn the difference between writing fact versus writing opinion. Thank goodness, alternate facts were not an option!
We talked about getting ideas and content and the pitfalls of not doing our due diligence to gather facts and ensure our opinion writing was informed and fact-based.
Specifically, I encouraged the students to seek facts from published newspaper articles, magazines, journals and books or watch documentaries and podcasts which have independent oversight and rules governing their accuracy.
For this newspaper, our check on facts and slander is the National NewsMedia Council.
Interacting with people of different backgrounds, religions, viewpoints and economic status, and travel outside the North American bubble were also important to keep us away from silo thinking.
Then I emphasized the two areas that do not shape my opinion—social media and the opinion of others — which include antidotal stories from friends and acquaintances and talking heads on radio, TV or online.
An antidotal story going around this election season and was told to me by a dearly loved person. She said,
“Her friend’s daughter in Lacombe had been forced by her teacher to join a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA).”
My follow-up questions included.
“What did the parent do?” “Did the principal handle the situation to her satisfaction?” “Did she have to take it higher up to the School Board or Minister of Education?” Alas, this friend-of-a-friend did not have an answer for any of my questions.
Even though I love and admire this person, I put absolutely no credence in the story, nor did I pass it on to others as fact.
When the outcome is left to our imagination, it should set off warning bells. I personally don’t believe there is a principal, school board or Minister of Education who wouldn’t have taken this complaint seriously and acted appropriately.
It’s human nature to accept a ‘story’ from a friend and pass it on. It is also in our human nature to assume things we hear over and over again are most important, when in fact they could be a distraction from what is truly important.
Like the teeny-tiny little bit of time or participation that GSAs make up in a publicly-funded school has been blown out of proportion.
Instead, it helped distract the electorate from the real issues in Alberta schools—the much-needed approval of the new K-4 curriculum which has significant improvements to both math and language arts curriculum, and the underfunding of educational assistants and classroom teachers.
Independent thought is being eroded when we are force-fed by mathematical algorithms on social media or follow the opinion of others without reading and thinking for ourselves.
We threaten rational debate and civil society when we pass on unverified antidotal stories as fact.
Accepting opinions as facts or antidotal stories as truth leaves us under the power of someone else’s opinion which history has shown to be very dangerous.