Fifty years ago Americans received their news from ABC, CBS, NBC and local newspapers featuring reporting from the wire services AP and UPI. These traditional news organizations subscribe to a Journalists Code of Ethics whose first principal is to “Seek truth and report it.”
Today people receive much of their information from sources other than traditional journalists including 24 hour “news” channels and websites and social media like Facebook or Twitter. Some of these platforms do not take responsibility for their content. Others masquerade as real news sources but they really just espouse continuous political or social issue campaigns designed to divide us, sow doubt, and in many cases, make money.
When you recieve “news,” how do you evaluate it for credibility” I served as a Circuit Court Judge for 14 years. When Major cases went to trial I did not decide them—juries did. Juries are made up of people like you who have to decide who is telling the truth and what the facts of the case are. My job as the judge was to give the jury guidance on how to determine the truth.
The social issues and political debates in our country are critical to all of us; therefore knowing the truth, the facts, about those issues and debates is critical. The law gives guidance to juries, perhaps it can give all of us some guidance as we look for the truth.
The following jury instructions for the State of Wisconsin may help you examine both the news (testimony) and the source of the new (the witness).
Wisconsin Jury Instruction #300 reads in part:
“In determining the credibility of each witness...consider these factors:
- whether the witness has an interest or lack of interest in the result of this trial;
- the witness’ conduct, appearance, and demeanor on the witness stand;
- the clearness or lack of clearness of the witness’ recollections;
- the opportunity the witness had for observing and for knowing the matters the witness testified about;
- the reasonableness of the witness testimony;
- the apparent intelligence of the witness;
- bias or prejudice, if any has been shown;
- possible motives for falsifying testimony; and
- all other facts and circumstances during the trial which tend either to support or to discredit the testimony.
Then give to the testimony of each witness the weight you believe it should receive.”
My point is this: we all judge the credibility of poeple we talk to each day. Do the same thing with your sources of information. Professional journalists have a code of ethics; many radio and TV talk show hosts and websites do not. Are the news sources attempting to report the truth or ary they trying to convince you that their opinion is the truth? Consider broadening your sources of information and be critical but open to hearing things that might make you uncomfortable. We should not be divided by who we believe or who shouts the loudest. We should seek the truth and be united by it. Seek the truth and then decide what to do based on the truth. We will not always agree on what to do, but we can agree on the truth. The real world can be very uncomfortable but the people in our world are amazing if we listen to their voices. Look for the truth and then take action based on the truth rather than on ignorance or fear.
R. Alan Bates served as a Rock County Circuit Judge. He retired in 2018.