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United Facts of America: Christiane Amanpour on truth, objectivity and the assault on democracy

Amaris Castillo
By Amaris Castillo May 13, 2021

There’s a real problem facing journalism today: the unprecedented assault in our democracies on the truth, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour shared on Thursday during the last day of the United Facts of America: A Festival of Fact-Checking. Social media has only made it worse in what she described as a massively polarized world.

"Actual elected democracies are, in a way that we could never have imagined, backsliding their own political systems," Amanpour said. "I think that’s very troubling for those of us who try to report the truth."

Drawing on her decades of reporting experience, CNN’s chief international anchor shared her perspectives on truth and trust in journalism during an interview with Neil Brown, president of The Poynter Institute. The virtual conference, which kicked off Monday, brought together fact-checkers, journalists, health care professionals and technology leaders for discussions about the importance of facts in a free society.

Brown asked Amanpour if people make a distinction between pundits and journalism.

"What I feel is that we must be very clear in terms of separating what is news and what is opinion," she said. "This is a constant struggle to keep a grip on what's actually happening and report what's actually happening."

Amanpour said journalists can, and should, be objective, but she stressed that objectivity should be defined by what it actually is. "Objectivity is not whataboutism, it is not about drawing false equivalencies, either factual or moral," she said. "I do believe that, when we seek the truth, we are being objective."

Amanpour spoke generally about her reporting decades ago in Bosnia, where she once described seeing the very best and worst of humanity. "I had to report the truth, which was there was one side that was being aggressed, started with what’s known as ethnic cleansing and then full-blown genocide by another side, and I could not equate those two sides, and I refused to equate those two sides," she said. "I was just doing my job: telling the truth and bringing the facts."

She remembered getting some pushback from fellow journalists and government leaders who didn’t want to intervene to stop the Bosnian War. She was accused of not being objective. That experience is why, for the last 30 years, Amanpour said she has focused on the notion that being objective is being truthful. 

"Which means that you can tell all sides of the story, obviously, and you should, but doesn’t mean to say you equate all sides," she said. "And particularly in the worst violations of international law, such as genocide and mass murder."

Brown asked how Amanpour could win over others with this honest approach to reporting and truth. The veteran journalist said she’s an open book and very fair and that she believes in trying to get to the bottom of what’s going on and being the eyes and ears of whoever is watching and reading.

Brown asked Amanpour about comments that her colleague, CNN host Jake Tapper, recently made about possibly not inviting some Republicans who keep perpetuating former President Donald Trump’s lie that he didn’t lose the election. She expressed sympathy for Tapper and offered that she does not invite climate deniers on her program. Amanpour recalled how journalists were able to bring an end to the "Red Scare'' paranoia pushed by Sen. Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s.

Toward the end of their interview, Amanpour was asked who was the most honest world leader she’s interviewed. She said the late King Hussein of Jordan. 

And the most dishonest? There have been so many, Amanpour said. But she noted that consumers of information now have to be their own fact-checkers — now more than ever.

"They also have a responsibility," she said. "We do our very best to bring the facts and the truth, but I do think people have to cross-reference and cross-reference and cross-reference."

How to help loved ones deep in misinformation 

Forty-five years ago this week, Steven Hassan said he experienced his "wakeup moment." That was when the then-young adult realized Sun Myung Moon, the head of the Unification Church (a cult famously known as the "Moonies") was a liar, that he was therefore untrustworthy, and couldn’t be a man of God.

Those critical thoughts, for Hassan, felt like a pile of cards falling. Thanks to his family, Hassan was able to untangle himself from undue influence — a term the mental health counselor described in detail Thursday during an interview with PolitiFact deputy editor Rebecca Catalanello.

Due influence involves informed consent. Undue influence, Hassan explained, involves lying, big lies and withholding vital information or distorting it (among other actions) to rework a person’s sense of self and sense of identity and belief system.

Hassan, who has since dedicated his career to helping educate the public about mind control and cults, shared advice on how attendees can help loved ones who have fallen into the rabbit hole of misinformation.

"The solution is really mass education about social psychology, about hypnosis, about how this works," he said. 

He advised people to stop demonizing those who are in what he described as "this cult of Trump."

"Stop calling names. Stop trying to use facts to get somebody out," he said. "What works best is asking a good question in a respectful way, waiting for an answer, and then following up and understanding that the person who still is in there wants to know the truth, wants to do the responsible thing and doesn’t like to be exploited and lied to."

Catalanello asked how technology has made us more vulnerable. Hassan said it’s changing the way our brains function and shortening our attention span. He added that the pandemic, economic pressures, the failed insurrection of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, and "the cult of Trump" have created what he described as a "stew of vulnerability."

"People are stressed out, and we’re wired to our technologies for survival. People need to hug each other and be together. It’s been a weird, horrible time, which has enabled these authoritarians to come in, repeating lies over and over, projecting their own …  intent on others who are trying to uphold the law and are trying to work collaboratively, to aspirationally lift up America," he said. "We’re in a war right now. It would be a mistake to say anything less."

As humans, we’re all vulnerable to being tricked and lied to, he said.

"The question is, what media are we listening to? Are we only in a bubble where we’re hearing one side, or are we open in hearing different sides and using our critical judgment to think about it?" ​

Misinformation researchers break down the efficacy of fact-checking with MediaWise

Two researchers who have extensively studied misinformation and fact-checking brought United Facts of America attendees into their world during an interview with MediaWise senior multimedia reporter Alex Mahadevan.

Mahadevan began by asking Emily Thorson, an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University, and Ethan Porter, an assistant professor at George Washington University, if fact-checking works.

Thorson said it absolutely does. She said people hold fact-checking to a high standard and often say that, if it doesn’t correct every single person, then it doesn’t work at all.

"I think the real question is, on average, across issues, across people, across contexts, does it successfully make people more accurate? And the answer is, I think, unequivocally, yes," she said. "That over hundreds of different experiments, when we expose people to fact checks, they become more accurate. It does not work for everyone all the time, but on average, yes it works."

Porter said fact-checking absolutely reduces false beliefs. Contingent on seeing a fact-check, people will become more accurate. But he offered two important limitations to that.

"I think there’s reason to believe that not enough people are seeing fact checks. I think there’s reason to believe that not enough people are not being exposed to the correct information," he said.

Porter added that fact checks don’t necessarily change people’s minds about issues or candidates.

Mahadevan asked how the effectiveness of fact-checking changed following what he described as an explosion of misinformation around COVID-19.

Thorson said the coronavirus has really accelerated the process of designing better fact checks. "Partially because it’s brought health communication researchers into the fold," she said. "Now I think the research is starting to build on insights from political science and put that into health, and build insights from health and put them into political science."

Porter said that though people come to hold more accurate views after seeing fact checks of COVID-19 misinformation, fact checks don’t in and of themselves compel people to get vaccinated or increase their willingness to get vaccinated.

Mahadevan widened the lens a bit by mentioning polarization as likely a huge issue when it comes to the consumption of fact checks and their efficacy. "One, are you seeing us get more polarized and, two, how does that affect the efficacy of fact-checking?" he asked.

Absolutely, Porter said about polarization. "The evidence on fact-checking shows that fact checks work pretty much equally well across partisan lines," he said. "So when Trump supporters have been shown corrections of Donald Trump’s misstatements, they’ve become more accurate subsequent to seeing fact checks. The same is true of Democrats shown corrections of Democratic leaders’ misstatements and false claims."

Though polarization is a major problem, Porter argued that it’s not the case that only one party responds to fact checks by becoming more accurate.

On how non-fact-checkers and nonjournalists can be better at being fact-checkers on their own, Thorson said we need many more people engaging about politics in civil ways online.

"So many of my students say, ‘Well, I just don’t talk about politics or policy. It’s too dangerous.’ When you do that, you kind of cede that ground only to people who are extreme and often uncivil," she said.

Thorson said figuring out ways to kindly correct people who spread misinformation, like friends or family, can often seem like a thankless task. You may upset a relative, but what you don’t see are the hundreds of people who saw that interaction and clicked on the link you offered.

"I think people don’t always get the immediate positive feedback from participating in that way, but the evidence suggests that it’s actually really effective," Thorson said. "I would really encourage people to engage in that, and engage in a civil way with people who they know."

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United Facts of America: Christiane Amanpour on truth, objectivity and the assault on democracy