The opening lines to the Sudbury Theatre Centre’s current production are spoken by a character who is the subject of rumour, speculation and, at times, great disdain. Father Flynn, the priest who is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a young boy, asks the audience, “What do you do when you are not sure?”
It’s a heady question that cuts to the core of how we interpret the world around us. But it also begs another question: if we are in doubt, how reliable can our information be?
Journalists ask this question all the time. Rarely is a story published that isn’t riddled with some elements of doubt. Sometimes the more questions are asked, the more doubtful the journalist may become in telling the story. How can one be certain that a person who goes “on the record” is telling the truth? How can one be certain that one person’s recollection is accurate?
When it comes to gathering information, we all need to be exercising due diligence. Mindlessly swallowing rumour and speculation breeds fear and uncertainty. Consider the recent H1N1 hype — the controversy surrounding vaccination against the flu strain became a deadly virus in its own right. People became lost as they listened to conflicting stories, read “reports” and became overwhelmed by the negative influence of doubt. What died was people’s trust in public health — who’s really looking out for us? Of course, debating the public good is not new.
When a flashpoint topic like this arises — such as the debate over whether or not to get vaccinated for H1N1 — we are reminded how critical it is to be well informed.
It takes discipline and hard work to go beyond the surface of what is reported.
But being well informed is not an easy task. Just ask Wendy Mesley. The host and reporter for CBC Television’s consumer investigation series Marketplace was in Sudbury several weeks ago to deliver a keynote speech at the Northern Cancer Research Foundation’s annual Luncheon of Hope. Mesley implored attendees to be “critical thinkers,” and to never take information at face value. Everything we read or hear about needs to be questioned — including what we think (or don’t think) causes cancer.
Human beings are, for the most part, lazy in nature. We will take a shortcut if we can. It takes discipline and hard work to go beyond the surface of what is reported. The end result is usually a payoff of increased understanding, but sometimes digging deeper results in further confusion.
Take a look at the current Vale Inco strike situation in Sudbury. The rhetoric, rumour and gossip — on both sides — is deafening. Who’s right? Who has the patent on accurate information? Those who have been through strikes in the past say it’s time to fasten our seatbelts, because the ride is going to be even bumpier. The more the various strike issues are explored and discussed, the harder it becomes to weed out doubt.
The strike issue is a hot stove topic on our web site. Any time a story or video is posted concerning Vale Inco or the Steelworkers’ union, an army of opinionated NorthernLife.ca users unleash their views in the form of reader comments. When you read through those comments, do you accept them as the truth? Or do you consider them simply to be other people’s opinions? Do you use these comments to help you justify your own beliefs? Or do you use them as a spring board into deeper research and discussion?
Digging deeper to uncover the truth should be the ultimate goal for anyone, especially journalists. But it’s a frustratingly slow process that doesn’t jive with today’s demands to get stories published quickly. People want their news NOW, we are told. For the most part, stories that are published in the media today only skim the surface of the issue. This is a troubling reality that frustrates those of us who work in a profession that is supposed to be an independent observer that is unbiased and informed. Easier said than done.
That’s why it’s so important that people look at everything with a skeptical view.
In today’s issue of Northern Life is an article written by reporter Heidi Ulrichsen that explores the impact of the strike on our local economy. It’s a story that reminds us to take a larger view of the current situation and relies on information from people who have seen strikes before, or who have the knowledge and expertise to put issues (such as housing prices and job losses) into perspective.
This informative article is not a definitive analysis of the situation. It is simply a seasoned, logical presentation of what several people in our community think about the issues at hand. It’s more insightful food for our readers to chew over.
Keeping one’s mind attuned to critical thinking is, well, critical. The only sure thing one can trust is what one thinks and believes. How one comes to those conclusions — about any matter — must be the result of personal due diligence. It would be wonderful to say that we journalists have it all together and that we always get to the heart of the matter in every situation. But the reality is we don’t.
In the STC play, Father Flynn concludes “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”
All of us, no matter what walk of life we follow, are bound by the desire to understand and interpret the issues that affect our lives.
The great thinker Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “Information is not knowledge.” How true! Without a doubt, in today’s sea of endless news, the pursuit of authentic knowledge is essential.
Wendy Bird is managing editor of Northern Life.