In the news: sifting through facts

For a while now, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been pretty excited about a vague path I see for myself which brings together my legal and political background with my long spiritual journey.  And part of that, since “fake news” became a massive problem, has involved a LOT of fact checking.

Between the history major, research when I worked on my PhD and loads of legal research, I have a lot of research experience and I’ve learned to navigate more easily since the internet makes a lot of those tools available without having to go to a library and stand around at the card catalog.

Recently it occurred to me that some of the stuff I’ve been doing might be useful to other folks trying to navigate the world of fact and fiction in the news.  Not suggesting other people don’t know how, just not everyone does and not everyone is aware of all the resources I am.

First up is figuring out which media outlets and fact checkers are trustworthy.  I separate media bias as an issue from media reporting falsified info.  These days you can search the name of a newspaper or website and “Is it legit?” and there are some pretty good sites that come up. Politifact has a good list but it’s old.

Media Bias Fact Check is pretty good but I have found some places that haven’t been updated to reflect a change of ownership that has impacted both bias and veracity (Patheos, for instance, has changed hands so the middle of the road and wide representation in writers has changed to purely evangelical and a biased point of view; no info on truth or fiction).

I’ve memorized some places that come up often for me that don’t measure up when checked, so I automatically am skeptical of anything from Occupy Democrats or Breitbart, to name two.  Fake news and truth stretching happens on both sides, so it’s good to be vigilant whatever your persuasion.

Some of the venerated places like the New York Times or Washington Post  (CNN, CBS, NBC, et al) generally do a pretty good job, but they do have a big liberal bias and sometimes present more of the info that supports the bias.  However, I don’t find they actually make anything up and one nice thing about the better news outlets is they often give you info on sources.

It’s easy to do some fact checking because they often reference studies made by Homeland Security or the Department of State, etc. and I have tracked down enough studies to see if the news story accurately reflected it to feel confident they report real info and are not making stuff up.

Fox, on the other hand, not only makes stuff up but rarely provides a serious study or report — or indeed any evidence at all — so they make it a little harder.  But generally if something is in the news you can use a search engine and some key words from the story to track down whether there is any supporting evidence for their claims. I’ve researched enough of their stories to feel confident they routinely make up news and ignore studies, facts, etc.

I know many on the right have vilified Snopes and Politifact, but I’ve researched facts on both sides of many issues and I find they’re just as willing to debunk Democrats and liberals as the GOP and conservatives.  To the extent I’ve followed some of their source trails, I’ve found both do a good job of fact checking and I trust their results.

All these sources are the ways to get an easy fix.  But if you really feel unsure about what’s true, there are a few places you can go.  As mentioned, there are often studies cited that were carried out by departments of government and use statistics they collect.

For instance, you can look at lots of data collected by the State Department, Homeland Security, the DEA and various state and federal law enforcement agencies to find the following info about the flow of drugs, immigrants in general, and immigrants from Central America and Mexico in particular:

  1. more drugs come in from Canada than Mexico
  2. most drugs enter through ports, not across southern border
  3. immigrants actually commit far fewer crimes than citizens
  4. there are more illegal immigrants who came in on legal visas and stayed after the visa expired than there are immigrants who came across any border illegally
  5. the largest number of those illegally here on expired visas are from Canada

You get the idea.  A huge amount of stuff being floated by the President, the GOP and Fox news is a complete fabrication and there are facts you can check.  There are many topics for which the government collects data and prepares studies, so you can often go straight to the source to find out what’s true.

Another source on line is to check on bills at government sites.  At the federal level the Congressional Record has every bill that’s been proposed and you can follow the stages of it and find out who voted which way.  At the state level, every state I’ve looked in on (by no means all) has had an on line government site where you can track bills and votes.

To find out about court cases, you can order a transcript on line but you have to pay.  If you just want to track proceedings and the basics of what happened, you can get a lot of info on line.  Just look up the court, i.e. federal district court or local county court or a state supreme court, etc. and somewhere in their tabs you’ll find info on court cases.

Most major universities have lots of grants to do studies and publish loads of material on every subject.  When you run a search to find data on many issues, look for studies by, say, Stanford or Northwestern or the University of Michigan, for example, and read some of their research.  Multitudes of studies are available on line for free.  Even universities have crackpots, so you might also do a check on the professor(s) who ran the research 🙂

Those are enough basics you should be able to negotiate sorting fact from fiction in most cases.  Hope it helps.

Separating Church & State Honors Our Ancestors

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

U.S. Constitution, First Amendment, Establishment and Free Exercise clauses

For some time I’ve been observing a growing trend among some Christians (mostly evangelical) to want to end the separation of church and state mandated by the Constitution and make every one conform to Christian values and participate in Christian practices.  They say they love America but their stance is so adverse to the foundation stones of our nation, it’s hard to imagine they even know our history.

I’ve been particularly thinking about it in light of my genealogy research and the many ancestors who came here to get away from religious persecution.  My 10x great grandfather, William Brewster, was a Puritan Separatist and his religious views first forced him to flee England for Holland.  He later managed to return to England long enough to board the Mayflower and come to the Plymouth Colony.

He was one of multitudes of Puritans who fled England because their religious beliefs were outlawed.  They braved the hazardous voyage across the ocean and came to the new world in the hope of finding freedom to worship as they chose.

On my mother’s side I’ve long since lost count of the number of Scottish Presbyterians — they’re all over the tree on both sides of her family.  Some broke off from the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and came here to establish their version of Presbyterianism.  Others, after accepting land in Ireland for some years, wound up fleeing to America when England began persecuting Presbyterians for their failure to follow Anglican law.

Presbyterians weren’t particularly welcome here either as the established religions along the coast disapproved of their beliefs.  They gave the Scots land at what were then the frontiers, in order to let them serve as buffers against the Native tribes.  In other words they were expendable.  Presbyterian ministers were rare in those parts, so many became Baptists.

These are just some of the stories of religious persecution that led many of our early citizens to the Colonies.  The Founding Fathers were well aware of the persecution that had hounded so many out of their homes and across an ocean.  There is also a great deal of evidence many of them were aware of other religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, etc.  So when they established free exercise of religion and forbade the establishment of a state religion, they were specifically safeguarding people from the kind of persecution so many had endured and, by their explicit failure to name Christianity or any denomination thereof, they extended that freedom to all religions.

Ironically many of those who are trying to force everyone to conform to their religious beliefs, to bring Christian prayers back into schools and make Muslim and Jewish and Hindu children participate, are descendants of the persecuted Christians who arrived in a new land seeking freedom to worship as they chose.

Every time I see one of these calls for the State to violate the First Amendment and participate in promoting evangelical Christian beliefs, I feel my ancestors have been dishonored.  That their suffering has been forgotten.  “Separation of church and state” were Jefferson’s words, describing the meaning of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, a separation created to make sure such persecution would not be repeated.

This wall between state and church was built to ensure all people freedom to pursue their religious beliefs without interference from the government.  Every call to take down that wall is an assault on one of the great foundation stones of the United States of America and shows either ignorance of or contempt for one of the most important lynch pins of our democracy; one which is central to its greatness.

Let’s not forget why so many of the original settlers came here.  Honor their pursuit of religious freedom by honoring religious freedom.