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My Complicity in the Misinformation Pandemic
Along with some holiday photos from France
I’ve been writing this blog for eighteen months, a fact that was surprising for me to learn as I am still finding my feet with it. My journey in writing prior to starting this blog began about fifteen years ago when I decided to move from photojournalism to journalism. Not really journalism so much as editorializing; I wrote some opinion pieces for small and large publications from 2008 through 2012. After that, I turned to the world of writing fiction and poetry, seeking to pursue a greater Truth through storytelling for over ten years. I had a well-intended but sick motive: to change people’s behaviors, beliefs and thinking so that we could democratically move towards a more sustainable future. At the beginning of this year, I set that motive aside but found that in so doing I lost my drive to write fiction or poetry. I do believe it is possible and good to write towards a greater Truth using these forms, but it’s not for me right now. I wasn’t sure where I would go next in my writing career, or if it had come to an end. And yet, the answer was right in front of me: I had started this blog about six months prior to concluding that I was done with poetry and fiction and have carried on writing opinion pieces here since.
How did I miss such an obvious reality? I suppose I had thought of this blog as a side-project, maybe even a temporary one, not my main focus as a writer. Yet, it was the only writing I was doing. But if I’m to take this blog more seriously, then I want it to serve the purpose that originally led me into writing: making a positive contribution to society. Not changing society, but serving it. It took me over a decade to figure out the difference between those two. Merely sharing my opinions is not the service I think society needs, instead I think what we need more of are facts.
I recently stumbled upon some data about mutual fund ownership of S&P 500 company stocks that made me look back at an earlier post I had written with regret. The post theorized that with a transition from boomers contributing to mutual funds in their retirement plans to retiring and beginning to draw from those funds, the market would take a turn for the worse as millennials were not picking up the slack by buying into funds at a greater or faster rate. There may be some truth to this theory, but its foundation is flawed: When I wrote the post, I assumed rather than verified just how much of publicly traded stocks were owned by mutual funds. The data I later stumbled upon, suggested that a far smaller percentage of these companies were held by mutual funds, something around 20% (whereas I had thought it closer to 70%).
Seeing my error reminded me of a challenge I’ve faced in my writing and dealt with more through avoidance than anything else: research. It’s so much easier to go with the gut, share opinions based on plausible facts and call it good. Our media is full of this and it leads our society to live based on oftentimes false information. It’s not a partisan issue either, both sides are guilty of not doing their homework. I hear opinions, anecdotes and statistics without citations on NPR far too often to suggest otherwise. We can label these things as fiction, opinion, etc and claim they do not contribute to the misinformation pandemic, but I think there’s more that can be done. How often do I read a story or watch a TV show that I know is fiction, but let it shape my worldview (with or without my knowledge or permission)?
So what can I do? While I can’t stop the onslaught of un-checked multimedia, I can at least stop contributing to it and instead move to fact-driven writing. Whether you call it non-fiction, journalism or research, the point is rather than just write about what interests me, I’m going to start doing my homework on what interests me. My own experiences and thoughts are the starting point and will determine my direction (I’m grateful to have that freedom), but the content I intend to publish here will be the result of research and investigation into these ideas, presenting more than just my opinion.
I’ve avoided this, even when it was required during my academic studies, because it’s painstaking and tedious work. It means a post could take dozens (or hundreds) of hours rather than just a handful to write. Lucky for me, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands. So let this post serve as the end of my opinion blogging, which has been a great experience and led to a lot of support from readers. Next up: facts.