Charlie Warzel: “Highlighting uncertainty and resisting easy narratives could help protect journalists”

From a Washington Post column by Charlie Warzel headlined “The UFO saga shows what happens when conspiracies and reality collide”:

It’s a weird time to be alive.

Covid cases in the United States are declining, but vaccination rates are stalling, too….The government is reexamining previously dismissed coronavirus origin theories.

Then, of course, there are UFOs. The sci-fi fliers have gone from fringe conspiracy theory to legitimate matter of national security in just months. Even former president Barack Obama has admitted the existence of recordings of flying objects that experts cannot explain.

Put together, these disorienting events can create precisely the sense of confusion that disinformation researchers, fact-checkers and swaths of the mainstream media try to bulwark against. Lately, the task feels increasingly difficult as many of the world’s biggest real-life stories are complex and constantly evolving topics, where today’s fantastical theory could become tomorrow’s truth. Perhaps the best answer for now is to slow down and learn to live in a bit of uncertainty.

Online especially, these already complex topics are shaped by and mapped onto our biases and identities….

What these stories share is that our knowledge of them is sometimes partial and constantly evolving. We’re often relying on authorities who also don’t have all the information or may disagree with the consensus in their fields. In many cases, the public must depend on government and law enforcement for transparency and truth — which shouldn’t inspire much confidence. Journalists and researchers who lack deep knowledge are left to rely on experts, yet not blindly follow experts’ every word.

It’s even harder when long-held conspiratorial fodder veers into plausibility, as with UFOs. The information gatekeeper in this scenario, the U.S. government, is in a no-win situation. In the unlikely event we learn that UFOs are proof of alien life and that this knowledge was withheld from the public for generations, public trust would implode….There’s a conspiracy behind every door, if you’re looking.

Which is why we ought to treat the UFO story with humility and caution. Sensational headlines conflating unidentified objects with alien life may get engagement, but they don’t add to our understanding and implicitly suggest an outcome we can’t control. Nor should we undersell what is clearly a fascinating admission. Sometimes, what’s necessary for a story is simply more time.

I asked Michael Caulfield, a digital literacy expert at Washington State University at Vancouver, for his advice when subjects of conspiracy collide with reality. “People struggle with issues where the answer is legitimately that we probably need better investigation of something,” he told me. “In general, if experts are truly uncertain about an issue, your quest for certainty might not be the best use of your time. It’s okay to say, ‘Experts are uncertain right now, I’m going to keep half an eye on this while they figure it out.’ ”

This sounds obvious, but for journalists trying to keep pace with the news, being late can feel like being wrong. That mentality needs to change. Plus, highlighting uncertainty and resisting easy narratives could help protect journalists from losing authority on debunking the truly fabricated and dangerous conspiracy theories….

Caulfield offered a question we can ask ourselves when we’re sorting through shifting information: “Is there a cost to not taking a side on this now? Because, if the information is truly going to be better in the future, why not express uncertainty and wait?”

We don’t actually live in a post-truth world. It just feels that way because the systems we’ve built — social media, traditional media — reward strong emotions and definitive conclusions. So if we feel increasingly like we’re living in a sci-fi future, we ought to embrace it and design for it. After all, the future has always been uncertain.

Charlie Warzel is a journalist who writes “Galaxy Brain,” a newsletter about technology, media and politics.

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