Chew on This offers food for thought on truth

Participants pose for a group photo before an Indiana Humanities discussion Tuesday on discerning the truth.

Doug Ross, The Times

Schoolchildren are accustomed to true/false questions on exams. They read a statement and determine whether it's true or false. For adults, though, discerning the truth is becoming more difficult.

Indiana Humanities hosted a conversation on "truthiness" recently at Dish Restaurant in Valparaiso, one of a series of conversations held across Indiana that day. It was the first time Indiana Humanities held its Chew On This program outside Indianapolis, said George Hanlin, the nonprofit's director of grants.

The conversation prompted a wide-ranging discussion of news consumption, particularly national and international news.

Some participants make a point of reading multiple sources of information to get a balance of views, but one noted that algorithms feed similar material, not divergent views, to online consumers.

Yet another noted while newspapers label commentary as opinion, some TV news channels don't tell viewers when they aren't offering straight news.

Several at that Indiana Humanities forum made pointed remarks about President Donald Trump, whose repeated remarks about "fake news" have sparked a national debate on whether we live in a "post-truth" era.

Trump uses hyperbole on a regular basis, unlike any other modern president. That makes it more difficult to figure out whether he really believes what he's saying, is laying out an extreme bargaining position or if he's simply the presidential version of the bombastic PT Barnum. 

But this debate on the truth goes far beyond Trump himself.

We are the divided states of America, in which even the fact-checkers, the scientific community's consensus and public opinion polls are viewed with skepticism by many Americans.

How can we make sound judgments based on facts when we can't even agree on what's factual?

News literacy has become a buzzword in the news media. News consumers need to recognize the difference between fake news and real news, a more difficult task in the digital age.

Facebook and other social media sites have begun to work with the news media to flag fake news when it's posted online.

That's a good start.

Individuals should look carefully at the URL associated with a story posted online. There's a big difference between .com and .cn, for example. And is there a physical address and contact information for the staff on the website where you found the story? 

That's just some of the news literacy we need to be teaching. News consumers in the modern era need to use their critical thinking skills to find the truth, just as the participants in that Indiana Humanities event said they do.

After that dinner, facilitator David Hoppe said he was glad everyone contributed to the dialogue and listened as well as spoke. But can that happen on a national scale?

"We may be past the point where debate is possible, genuine debate," Hoppe said.

Political tensions have increased to the point at which residents of one local retirement community have been told not to talk politics with each other.

So a left-leaning resident reported that a right-leaning resident asked him to go out for coffee. Each week, they're now discussing issues and gaining appreciation and respect for the other's point of view.

That's my challenge to you. Find someone you might not agree with and listen to their point of view. Start by talking about things you can agree on — the weather, the menu, the beauty of sunsets. Talk about your work life, your family, your childhood. Then work your way into deeper waters, including the news of the day. You might find yourself becoming friends even as you agree to disagree on certain subjects.

We'd get closer to becoming the United States of America again.

Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross can be reached at (219) 548-4360 or Doug.Ross@nwi.com. Follow him at www.facebook.com/doug.ross1 and on Twitter @nwi_DougRoss. The opinions are the writer's.

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Porter/LaPorte Editor Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.