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Silverman: Copy editors can cut through the fog of falsehood

Silverman: Copy editors can cut through the fog of falsehood

April 28, 2014 By Matthew Crowley Conferences

It’s hard to see the truth through the fog of doubt. Or the haze of rumor pollution.

In his keynote speech at the American Copy Editors Society’s 2014 convention in Las Vegas, Craig Silverman, author of “Regret the Error” and editor of the “Verification Handbook,” described a particularly nasty strain of rumors, spread far and alarmingly fast partly through social networks. But he said copy editors can help stanch the flow of falsehoods.

In the March 22 address at Planet Hollywood Resort, Silverman described rumors, fomented by the Western press, about pollution in China. The stories suggested that atmospheric filth had so obscured the sun that the government had to project images on screens to let people know when it was sunset

The story was bogus.

Silverman said rumors are as old as people and often derive from uncertainty. Because people are inherently social, he said, and have an irrepressible instinct to make sense of things, rumors can result from a collective search for truth. People try to understand something foggy and make things up to explain it.

In disasters, Silverman said, rumors can emerge from people trying to warn one another of danger. Fear or mistrust of large institutions, companies, governments, or in China’s case, politically strengthening foreign nations, spawn them, too.

“This example in China is really about fear of the other,” Silverman said. He said it combines suspicion of China and perhaps its role in usurping American power with distance that keeps people from understanding what Chinese society is like

Sometimes bogus stories come less from sensemaking and more from doubtmaking. Many powerful, well-financed, interests have a financial stake in sowing doubt, Silverman said.

In the 1960s, for example, tobacco ads warning against the perils of cigarette smoking might picture doctors smoking cigarettes. (How bad, the message seemed to say, could smoking really be?) One tobacco industry executive, Silverman related, once said, “Doubt is our product.”

These days, Silverman said, companies with something financial to gain may question global warming’s existence even if a phalanx of scientists have vouched for it.

And sometimes famous people, perhaps from personal fear, spread dangerous ideas. Childhood measles, which were once effectively eradicated by vaccines on North America, are resurfacing, partly because of the false notion, advocated by celebrities like actress Jenny McCarthy, that vaccines cause autism. (McCarthy’s son Evan was diagnosed with autism.)

Craig Silverman
Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute presents the keynote speech at the 2014 ACES conference.

In this case, copy editors are fighting a sustained din of doubt — New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote April 22 that because McCarthy is both pretty and famous, she got gobs of airtime to push her widely disproved notion.

“It’s not about proving that vaccines aren’t safe,” Silverman said, “it’s just about creating enough doubt so parents will think, ‘Well, I’m going to make an informed change not to vaccinate my kids.’ ”

Copy editors, Silverman said, are well equipped to expose this chicanery. They can fight organized money with numbers.

First, he said, they’re practiced at using tools, like corroborated statistics, vetted studies and the new, free-to-download Verification Handbook, to dispel falsehoods.

And they’re committed to quality control, ensuring only single spaces follow periods and lies stay out of texts. Copy editors, he said, are helped by the skill to examine text counterintuitively and interrogate it in ways writers, and many readers, might not consider.

“This is your ability to hack your brains in a way, to see things that other people don’t and to try to see the skeletons of it, what are the sources and where does this come from and can we do better than this?” he said. “That ability … is an incredibly valuable skill because you can spot bullshit before other people do.”

Stopping rumors may follow the old axiom “Think globally, act locally.” Silverman said copy editors form a grass roots force by speaking up when they see falsehood, in their oral conversations, printed texts or online social networks.

“Copy editors can be the greatest rumor-smashing force in the history of humankind,” he said, drawing hearty applause. “I really believe that.”

Matthew Crowley has been an ACES member since 2001. He is a copy editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reach him at matthew_crowley@copydesk.org or follow him on Twitter at @copyjockey.

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