“Fake News” Means Psychological Denial

The phrase “fake news” is relatively new. Criticisms of the news media have been around for as long as there have been media summaries of events. Generally, however, criticisms focus on one of three things: distortions – “You have taken my comments out of context,” – selecting only portions of what one said – “You included only the first sentence of my comment,” – and blatant misquotations – “I did not say dire consequences ‘will result’ from your actions, but that dire consequences ‘could possibly result’ from your actions.” The “fake news” comment, however, is different because to most people it does not mean distorted, doctored, or inaccurate news. Rather, it seems to mean, “This is news contrary to what I believe and I don’t want to hear it. Therefore, what I am seeing and hearing is not real. It is fake.” In other words, they are saying their position is based on personal belief, is set in stone, and there is no point in even discussing contrary news because it is like counterfeit money – a fraud, bogus. In short, they simply deny the reality of “fake news” because it opposes their belief. This is not a healthy way to cope with adversity, or to solve disagreements with others.

When I was a young college professor, a local TV sports reporter asked me for an interview about the psychological effects of Little League participation. I readily agreed because I believe Little League provides important life lessons to kids and strengthens them psychologically. Having the chance to deliver that message on TV was a great opportunity.

At the beginning of the interview, I mentioned standards that Little League helped instill in participants: teamwork, sportsmanship, and respect for others; how to lose or win with dignity, honor, and integrity; respecting and understanding rules and following them honestly; being accountable for mistakes and working to correct those mistakes. And on I went in what I felt was fine professorial form. Then the interviewer asked, “What about the importance of winning? Can winning be overemphasized? Can playing the game for the sole purpose of winning give kids the wrong message?”

“Of course,” I said, and proceeded to note how an overemphasis on winning would undermine all the positive life lessons I had just mentioned. For example, a stress on winning does not prepare young people for failure, and ultimately produces low self-esteem.

Guess which part of the interview was broadcast? You got it! The second part. I watched the interview on TV and was horrified to see myself sound like someone who hated Little League, and believed it did severe psychological damage to kids. After a class the next day, a student came up to me and said, “My dad coaches Little League and he thinks you should shut up.” I described the entire interview to the student, and asked for his dad’s phone number so I could call him and explain my real position to him. (I did so and we had a great conversation about the importance of Little League values and principles.)

Was the TV broadcast fake news? Absolutely not! The tape was not doctored or counterfeit; what viewers saw and heard was precisely what I had said: in Little League there is the possibility of over-emphasizing winning, and doing so can be psychologically harmful. But, if not fake news, did the broadcast at least distort and misrepresent my views by not presenting my critical comments in the context of my original positive evaluation of Little League? You bet it did! And I guarantee you I called the TV station producer and the reporter the next day and told them what I thought about the reporter’s ethics.

OK, let’s see if there’s a coping lesson in all this. The phrase “Fake News” is simplistic and implies that life operates according to either/or rules: things are right or wrong, real or fake; what I believe is correct and real, what you believe is false and fake. This kind of juvenile thinking denies subtle distinctions that surround us every day. When it comes to evaluating information, there just aren’t too many incontrovertible absolutes. In my interview the segment that aired was accurate in conveying what I said; it was, however, unfair (to me, at least) because viewers had no chance to evaluate my criticism in an appropriate context.

“That’s Fake News!” is so easy to say, but the comment boils down to psychological denial. You rely on arguments that are simple, concrete, childlike, and easy for you to accept, so you can effortlessly deny the validity of others’ beliefs. “That’s Fake News! I am right, you are wrong, so get lost!” What is difficult, however, is rising above the “Fake News” phrase and trying to understand opinions different from your own. That effort requires an appreciation of nuance; a willingness to discuss opposing viewpoints; and empathy, a characteristic that a phrase like “Fake News” does not encourage. Like most things in life, choosing the difficult road may be worth the effort. That road leads to unity by finding commonalities in differences, resolving conflicts, and proposing compromise where everyone emerges a little bit unhappy, but also a little bit happy.

Don’t let a platform that uses the term “Fake News” be your guidance in your interpersonal relations. If you do, you will be encouraged to treat others with condescension, making it obvious you believe they are inferior to you because they are fake and you are real. No matter what the issue, if guided by “Fake News,” you will automatically take sides and overlook the complexities of the issue. Your world view will be simpleminded and naive, and you will generate emotional upheaval in your social interactions, allowing anxiety, frustration, and anger to dominate you. Solving conflicts – coping well with reality – requires a problem-based strategy, not an emotion-based one conveyed by the phrase, “Fake news.”

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