January 13, 2017

If you’d like to experience raw hate and ignorance, do a Twitter search for the words “Doris Truong” and “Tillerson.”  Angry tweets and retweets claim the home page editor of the Washington Post was caught sneaking pictures of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s notes during his confirmation hearing. There’s video. Memes. Calls for her firing because this is proof she’s a “scumbag.” Drudge, the Gateway Pundit  and other sites had the news. Even Sarah Palin tweeted about it, so it must be true, right? Dead wrong. It wasn’t Doris. No matter. She was publicly vilified and personally attacked. Her Post account of the Kafka-esque experience as a victim of fake news.

“Trolls Decided I Was Taking Pictures of Rex Tillerson’s Notes. I Wasn’t Even There” is chilling.  The fake news had started spreading overnight, and:

By the time I woke up, trolls had commented on social media channels besides Twitter. My Facebook feed had dozens of angry messages from people I didn’t know, as did comments on my Instagram account. Even my rarely used YouTube channel attracted attention. My emails and my voicemail included messages calling me “pathetic” and a “sneaky thief.”

A lot of the comments also focused on my Chinese heritage, implying — or outright stating — that I must be spying for China. Some called for an FBI investigation of what they deemed illegal behavior.”

I know Doris. She’s a friend.  I’ve taught and coached in her newsroom and have worked with her on diversity programs for journalism associations. She’s a smart, strong and ethical journalist. What drove the assault on her?  Fake news. Political tribalism. Racism. Sexism. All were on display in the litany of errors and insults that enveloped her. But those were actually the results of something even more basic: a lack of critical thinking about the video at the heart of the story. Watch it. But when you do so, watch it with questions, not assumptions.  Remember the key questions my ethics mentor, Dr. Bob Steele, taught generations of journalists to ask: What do I know? What do I need to know? Had anyone viewing the video operated using those questions, rather than their assumptions and biases, things could have been different. Let’s try it. We know: There is a video of a woman. We need to know:

  • Who is she?
  • What is her role?

We know: She has something in her hands that appears to be a phone. We need to know:

  • Is there anything else it could be?

We know: She is doing something with the thing that looks like a phone.

  • What are some possibilities? Photography? Video? Texting? Anything else?

We know: This is happening at a government hearing. We need to know:

  • Is a public place?
  • Is photography prohibited here?

We know: Something is on the table. We need to know:

  • Are these Tillerson’s notes?
  • Could they be anything else? Doodles?
  • Is anything marked “confidential’?
  • If something is marked “confidential,” should it be left out in the open? Would that be newsworthy?
  • If they are his notes, not marked “confidential” but left out in the open, is it ethical for anyone to capture images of them?

And then, the most important questions:

  • How do I know the answers to these things?
  • Did I do adequate research?
  • Were my sources varied and valid?
  • Did I try to disprove any hypothesis I started with as vigorously as I tried to prove it?

The term “fake news,” in its short life, has already been twisted into pretzel shapes by people for whom it is “information I don’t agree with.” Doris Truong’s case shows us the real damage of fake news. It can be propagated not only by those who traffic in deception and racism, but by any of us who fail to do the hard work of critical thinking. When you’re tempted to pass judgment and share it with others, remember: What do I know? What do I need to know?

Jill Geisler
is the inaugural Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity, a position designed to connect Loyola’s School of Communication with the needs and interests of contemporary and aspiring media professionals worldwide. Geisler is known internationally as a teacher and coach of leaders in media and beyond. She is also a CDEP Advisory Board member. @JillGeisler