Misinformation And A Shared Reality

Kathleen Hall Jamison is a towering figure in academic journalism–she has authored numerous books and articles on the relationship between media and politics, and she founded and still oversees Factcheck.org.

Politico recently ran an interview with Jamison in which she made some important distinctions–between truth and fact, and between consequential and inconsequential misinformation.

Journalism is the reporting of fact. Truth is a more fraught concept. In common with most people, Jamison says she hears the word “truth” with a capital T. The word thus capitalized tends to confirm finality: I have discovered the Truth and need not investigate further.

We live in a world in which our understanding is progressing. Knowledge is evolving. There are “truths” in the universe—truths about physics, for example. There are “truths” inside a religious universe—presuppositional things that people treat as truth.

Rather than speaking of Truth-with-a-capital-T, Jamison is more comfortable saying that “there is knowledge that is more or less certain”–what I’d call “facts on the ground.”

She also provides a clear-headed summary of the situation in which Americans currently find ourselves.

So, that said, we live in an environment in which institutional trust is down. The challenge to established knowledge is now greater than it once was. The institutions that certify what we can know are not as trusted as they once were—in part because they have done things that demonstrate that they aren’t able to be trusted (at least some of them in some circumstances). You’ve got more factors challenging institutional forms of knowledge production, and sometimes that’s healthy—trying to hold them accountable is a goal of journalism. Some of them are more trustworthy than others; those that are more trustworthy are trustworthy more times than some would think. There are methods underlying trustworthiness of knowledge. Transparency is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Reproducibility is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. A culture of self-critique and of critique is a norm. When it’s not honored, less trust. Those are norms of science. Those are also norms of good journalism.

We live in a world in which some good tendencies—the tendency to critique, the tendency to be skeptical—have gotten out of hand. And as a result, and we live in a polarized environment in which, for ideologically convenient ends, people who see ideologically inconvenient “knowledge” have more ways to discredit it with fewer places to anchor the knowledge.

When it comes to the distinction between information that is and is not consequential, Jamison gives a shout-out to the judiciary, noting that the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign. We aren’t without tools for determining what is knowable and what is not.

That said, Jamison’s concern is with consequential facts.

With a lot of things, whether or not they’re factual doesn’t really affect anybody. I mean, they’re useful to know at a cocktail party, but they’re not consequential.

So how do we understand what is consequential? She provides an excellent analogy:

If you’re going to teach kids civics, I don’t care whether they know when Paul Revere rode. I don’t even care if they know that Paul Revere rode. In fact, I don’t care whether Paul Revere rode.

I do care that they understand there are three branches of government. I care that they understand that there are checks and balances built into our system. I care that they understand we have a veto—and what that means, when you exercise it, and how you override it. I care that they understand that there’s an independent Supreme Court; that we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government. Those are consequential. They are consequential because if you understand them, you act and think differently about our system of government. The willingness to protect our system is, in part, a function of understanding our system, and understanding that our system has presuppositional facts—consequential facts—under it. If I don’t understand those things, then if the Supreme Court issues a series of unpopular decisions that I don’t like, I’m more likely to say that maybe we should get rid of the Supreme Court.

It all comes back to operating in a shared reality. That’s especially important to our ability to communicate, and to be contributing citizens in  a functional political system.


  1. The FACT is that we have elected a Democratic President, Vice President, House and Senate majority. The TRUTH is that Donald Trump’s Republicans continue to maintain control over the Legislature with their minority and gained control over the Judicial branch with Trump’s appointees.

    What will be the ultimate consequences of this situation as it stands today?

    The FACT is “…the courts have established rules for determining what constitutes relevant evidence and determining its credibility. Those mechanisms allowed the courts to arrive at a common conclusion when faced with the false assertions of the Trump campaign.”

    The TRUTH is that the Republican support remains with Donald Trump’s stolen election lies even with his own judicial appointees declaring otherwise. What will be the consequences of this in 2022? Which “shared reality” will prove to be the strongest?

  2. Shared reality? That horse has left the barn a long time ago!

    We have so-called testimonials that we can declare truthful, but in those testimonials, are those who testify actually based in reality? Are they Trustworthy?

    When different factions have different reality, how can there be a trustworthy truth?

    When you have fellow citizens deciding to abdicate empirical evidence pointing towards truth, for an unseen but ubiquitous perception, there can be no compromise!

    A religious or biblical example of this could be, Jesus words, as quoted at John 14:6 which reads, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

    So the truth as provided by Jesus Christ did not mean that the Mosaic law was erroneous in its dictum, as it was conforming to the long lineage of God’s edicts through the prophets unbroken for millennia. As in Psalms 19:151 and Romans 7:10-2.

    The Mosaic law was the holding place, or a shadow that was actually foreshadowing the truth to come in Christ!

    As the apostle Paul explained in his letter to the congregations in Colossae, “let no man judge you eating and drinking or in respect of a festival or and observance of the new moon or of a Sabbath or those things are a shadow of the things to come but the reality belongs to Christ.” Colossians 2:16, 17.

    So, where does truth intersect with faith?

    Hebrews 10:1-5 provide the answer biblically and religiously to these questions, which reads; ” For since the Law has a shadow of the good things to come, but not the very substance of the things, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make those who approach perfect. 2 Otherwise, would not the sacrifices have stopped being offered, because those rendering sacred service once cleansed would have no consciousness of sins anymore? 3 On the contrary, these sacrifices are a reminder of sins year after year, 4 for it is not possible for the blood of bulls and of goats to take sins away. 5 So when he (Christ) comes into the world, he says: “‘Sacrifice and offering you did not want, but you prepared a body for me.

    So, does faith denote truth? Scripturally, yes! In the world of man’s politics, absolutely not! Scripturally and biblically there was one shared reality by faith, in man’s political realm, there are many realities and alternate realities which contain many facts and alternate facts. Without the unity of a shared explicit reality, there can be no societal cohesion. One group will never accept the reality of another.

    Another example of this scripturally and religiously is Hebrews the 11th chapter if you’re not afraid to read it!

    In the conservative realm of the politics of man, their conscience should always reflect back on the scriptural backing and examples of truth telling, but I guess that reality does not exist anymore.

  3. It is unfortunate that some members of the Supreme Court seem to think that they, and only they, know the Truth, whereas the rest of us have to get along knowing some consequential facts.

  4. “In the conservative realm of the politics of man, their conscience should always reflect back on the scriptural backing and examples of truth telling, but I guess that reality does not exist anymore.”

    John Sorg; the FACT is that your comment above does exist as the TRUTH, or their claim of truth, of the Trump White Nationalist evangelical Republican party foundation. The Trumpist’s shared reality is that they claim to be acting as Christians in the name of God carrying out His scriptural backing and truth-telling as they believe it. Your fact-finding is always based in Biblical scripture and not on journalism reporting of fact or the concept of truth in this 21st Century. A “shared explicit reality” cannot be found in scripture; one man’s scripture is another man’s bigotry; Pence’s RFRA is a primary example.

  5. We probably should say that ideally “…we’ve set up the Supreme Court to be different and that it’s not a political branch of government.” In fact, it is no longer that way, thanks in large part to Mitch McConnell.

  6. I like the idea of distinguishing between truth and Truth, or the court standard of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But there is an equally important factor and that is knowledge or context.

    For instance, research published in scientific journals reveals the result of a determined investigation into a hypothesis as to whether it is True or false. Interesting perhaps but I can certify many require the context of knowledge to even understand the words used.

    I find that this forum is fascinating from both the perspectives of Truth and context because it is exceptional in both. Sometimes what I get from reading here is more of one than the other mostly because of my shortages of context but I know that I can count on a healthy dose of both every day.

    What I sense though is often impatience with people who don’t participate here because on average they act like they have less of both.

    The Truth is that is True. As Sheila points out regularly here the real question is what can we do about that? Well, one thing is to write. Another is to teach. Both are exemplified here also.

  7. JoAnn, agree with your comments of 8:37 am.

    Back when I was in High School (1960’s) we were taught Civics and had to take a test to graduate. One course we had in Social Studies concerned journalism, which touched on propaganda: big lie, hackneyed cliches presented as facts (we would call the cliches -Memes today).

    Today more than ever in my lifetime people seek out “News” to support their pre-conceived notions of reality. Bias has always existed in the News Media, now more than ever is it packaged up for a particular audience.

    Andrew Cuomo last spring was hailed in some circles as “Hero of the Republic” for his handling of Covid 19 and standing up to the Trumpet now finds himself mired up to his hips in a double scandal involving sexual harassment allegations and the misreporting of Covid deaths inside nursing homes.

    I suppose The Trumpet must have that smiling sneer on his face as the Cuomo saga plays out.

    The danger for us is elevating politicians or the rich and famous to Heroic Mythic proportions. The myth of Icarus maybe instructive: “don’t fly too close to the sun”. Hubris a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence.

  8. For one, who can honestly or truthfully declare that the Supreme Court is an independent institution of the US government?

    The deceased jurist Scalia claimed there was no evidence of reciprocity between donor and politician. He also declared there was no evidence of voter suppression. Both were lies. He had access to facts as other jurists.

    You can also teach civics all day long, but what truths will be agreed upon before instruction? For instance, what was the intended structure of the framers? Was it a constitutional republic? A democratic republic? A democracy? An oligarchy?

    I would like to hear a panel with Jamison discussing the intentions of the framers as to the type of government they were creating and whether or not that one still exists today. I believe that truth is important before outlining a curriculum for a civics class.

    It’s the same thing when I hear the talking heads on TV referred to as journalists. The same goes for many who write in the newspaper. Reading a script does not make one a journalist. And what if I consciously know I am sharing untruths.

    I think morality and consciousness play into truth-seeking and truth-sharing.

  9. Kathleen’s premise on teaching the nuts and bolts of government rather than Paul Revere’s ride (which smacks of American exceptionalism as drama) may be at odds with what some educational psychologists have to say on the topic, to wit: that some drama via such exceptionalism (mythical as it may be) can be an aid to learning. My now deceased wife’s doctoral thesis treated the results of teaching reading via conventional methods as opposed to its teaching in content areas, content areas that require different levels of reading skills.

    I may personally be an example of the pure “nuts and bolts” approach as opposed to a “nuts and bolts” plus a bit of drama in its teaching presentation. Thus I recall my old IU World Politics professor in 1948 who would always refer to humanity as “homo saps,” while I remember precious little of his lectures on German Reunification, the Triple Entente, Elba, Burke, Locke et al, and if the yardstick used by some educational psychologists (retention) is accurate, then perhaps a bit of Paul Revere spice added to the educational scheme is warranted. Further research is suggested. Whatever works.

  10. Well, there are facts, there is the “truth” and then the Truth.”
    And there is another word. Honesty. And then there is the word opinion.

    Science deals with facts. Courts deal with the evidence which are facts. How factual the evidence is depends upon how truthful the witnessses are. Jurisprudence is hopefully based on facts not opinion.

    For me the question is, do members of a jury base their decisions on factual evidence or biased opinions of the defendant’s character,race,gender identity, sexual orientation. Opinions are not always based on facts. People who deny global warming are NOT paying attention to the facts.

    And yes, civics education is essential if we wish to maintain our democracy. We need not only civics education but also education about civility. We need to educate students on how to remain civil in a debate and how to base one’s side of a debate on facts not opinion.

  11. JoAnn,

    Sheila brought up religion so I felt it was my obligation to put forth that particular viewpoint!

    Now, if that tends to be an issue with you, that I would suggest maybe you take it up with Sheila and possibly she won’t bring religious connotations into the parameters of her threads.

    The fact remains, that there are absolute truths that are passed down from generation to generation as brought out in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians!

    But how? He brought out that the innate knowledge of Truth and the Law, through faith, is held through one’s conscience.

    I believe it states something like, –those who do not live under the Law have knowledge of the Law—so, every person has a conscience whether they choose to follow it or not, “is” another story.

    What you bring out about Trump and his Evangelical followers, they purposely negate their conscience by following a man rather than the Law. If individuals want to make comments or discuss the reasons behind those who believe as the Evangelical group does, you have to be aware of what I posted in my first comment. That way, you can make an argument with those individuals as I do on other websites, including relatives who seem to love Donald Trump and claim to be christian. But to completely dismiss that aspect of a person’s core beliefs whether true or not, it’s part of the problem and not part of the solution! And, I might add, it makes one that conducts themselves in that manner, no better than the one they Roil against!

  12. Pete,

    Very enlightened comment you made, and right on point.

    I would also say, that Sheila mentioned physics, and that the laws of physics are usually pretty straightforward. But, the laws of physics in this part of our galaxy or universe might be different than the truth of physics in another part of the Galaxy or universe.

    This is not a stretch or a false narrative, because there has been observable fact that has been investigated through advancement in scientific technologies which allow men to peer further into the observable past and deeper into the observable universe.

    And, or, we can discuss the importance of theoretical physics as promoted by theoretical physicists which are a very important part of cosmology.

    As a result we now know that the initial truth was not that the universe was slowing its expansion and eventually will contract and start the Big bang all over again, but that the universe is expanding and speeding up is expansion! So, a new truth? Or, just a truth that was always evident but just came to a new realization by men’s scientific curiosity!

    Like I said before on previous threads, I am a huge fan of science and I do have other formats that I comment in and promote scientific interchange and exchange with other like-minded individuals.

    Many hundreds of scientific journal articles, from cosmological publications to particular journals that deal exclusively with physics. These lend credence to the conclusion concerning physical laws being realized, “only”when men have reached the capacity to do so. It’s not that the universe changed, it’s man’s perspective that has changed.

    This is no different than scripture! If one chooses to be a student rather than a critic of science and or scripture, those individuals will be enlightened more than those who they choose to pick an argument with. But, it seems that people would choose to live in an intellectual stupor rather than coming to deeper realizations which can bring about cohesive discussions rather than alienating diatribes.

    Too bad so many can criticize tribal affiliations and not look at their own tribal beliefs! it’s a shame people intellectually hamstring themselves because of the need to belong or, to be agreeable with associations that feel Superior, and that includes all tribal affiliations, left, or right, or center!

  13. “Journalism is the reporting of fact.” Okay…start with that assertion for arguments sake… Now… What we need to think about is, Is that a Fact? Or a “truth” about Journalism??

    Journalists who think that they are “reporting” “unbiased” “facts” should have another think coming — Meet Kellyanne Conway and her “Alternate Facts”….

    Seriously…Biases, known and unknown, are ALWAYS with you, twisting your perceptions… You are always picking and choosing what “facts” matter and that you’ll pay attention to…

    And if one don’t know this, then one is really in serious need of some help…

  14. Jeffrey Nelson,

    Excellent point describing the willful disillusionment that’s invasive across spectrum of journalism. And, as you’ve described, it doesn’t matter if the scoop is based and fact or an alternate reality, it gives that journalist some self needed praise and questionable cred. (And let’s not forget ratings)

  15. I have always thought that it was more important to understand, than to memorize dates. Those I can always look up. If they are useful on a daily basis, I will remember them, like the molecular weights or half-lives of many substances when I was in the lab, or basic coding commands, now that I am a computer jockey. The date of Paul Revere’s ride? I never remembered it.

    Journalist’s facts are tricky when they leave out the middle. The Secretary of State conducted a recount and found no evidence of fraud – so he said (a fact); Giuliani said that there was wide-spread fraud (a fact). The missing middle? Why we should believe the SOS and not Giuliani.
    Fox News tends to leave that out.

    With due respect to the law (many friends and family members are attorneys), I usually point out this difference between science and law. In law, the idea is that each side will argue strongly and a close approximation of the truth will be obtained (with a judge as referee). We know that “equal” sides aren’t always equal in courts, nor in commerce. A bad decision can lead to the end of a life.

    In science, the interpretation of the evidence is supposed to lead to a close approximation of the truth. If a bad decision is made, it can be reversed, even centuries later. It is now believed that Gregor Mendel fudged his famous genetics experiments, even though his basic ideas were correct (in some cases).

    It would be nice if journalists, attorneys, and scientists stuck to stating facts, and separately draw conclusions (summations in court, discussion sections in scientific papers, Op-Eds in newspapers).

    Maybe I shouldn’t say that Fox News doesn’t follow that form; I probably shouldn’t call them journalists.

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