Seattle CHAZ: The Importance of Healthy Skepticism

In chapter 4 of Become Your Own Fact-Checker, "Skeptics Ruin Everything, Except when They Save Everything," I discuss the importance and use of a healthy skepticism.

Healthy skepticism is one of the surest ways to recognize fake news, misleading reporting, or other types of misinformation.

If something seems too something to be true, then it probably isn’t true. Recognizing that something requires a certain amount of skepticism.

Case in point:

If you're unfamiliar with the story, the Seattle police withdrew from a six-block area after some conflicts with protesters, and then some of those protesters put up their own barricades and signage, creating a cop-free “capitol hill autonomous zone“ or “CHAZ.”

Some media outlets have depicted the CHAZ as violent, dangerous anarchists taking over a city, extorting businesses for “protection,” and ID-checking residents traveling in and out of the area.

That depiction, however, doesn’t match the accounts of the business owners and residents in the CHAZ. To hear the people living and working there tell it, the “take-over” seems to be an extended block party with sprinkles of protesting and a lot of late night music.

Yet the media outlet using the photoshopped, misleading images that it later removed when questioned about them ...

Healthy Skepticism Helps Fact-Check Claims

How can a healthy skepticism help fact-check misleading news reporting? It alerts you to the something that doesn't seem quite right.

Given how police have responded to violent unrest in other cities, it’s hard to believe Seattle police and government officials would respond to the kind of destruction depicted in the photoshopped images by withdrawing from the area.

And in fact, the images come from Minneapolis, where police fought against the riots and the Minnesota governor called in the National Guard.

If something seems too outrageous, shocking, or confusing to believe, then most likely it is too outrageous, shocking, or confusing to be true.

But media outlet A says that one thing is happening, and media outlet B says something completely different. Which is true? Whom do you trust?

Trust yourself.

If outlet A's story seems unbelievable but outlet B's story appears more reasonable, then B's story is probably closer to the truth. Truth isn't always stranger than fiction; the saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction" exists because of outliers, not norms.

What makes one story or depiction of events seem unbelievable while another story or depiction appears more reasonable?

Ask yourself, does this story square with what I know about similar situations? Does this story sound like the kind of reaction I'd expect from fellow human beings?

Given what we know about police response to the recent protests, riots, and looting in the wake of George Floyd's death, the idea that Seattle police would cede six city blocks to armed anarchists who are shaking down locals just doesn't square with everything else we've observed from police nationwide.

If one media outlet presents version X of the story and three other media outlets present version Y, then the Y version is probably more accurate.

It's possible that the one media outlet has a "scoop" or some unique insight, but far more often, we should be wary of an outrageous story that's reported by a single outlet and not quickly corroborated and reported by other outlets.

When multiple sources report the same story in a similar way, then you're on the right track. That depiction has been vetted and corroborated by multiple reporters, editors, and sources. The wider you read, the more likely you're getting the full picture.

Third, check for inconsistencies internal to the media outlet presenting the outrageous or outlier version of the story.
Internal inconsistencies and problems like this:

As you can see, the same image of a masked, armored man with an assault rifle has been photoshopped into three different real-life scenes. That's as misleading as it gets.

So far, I've blacked out and avoided naming the news network who presented these misleading, photoshopped images. I didn't want to prejudice your reaction to my analysis of this example and how it illustrates the importance of a healthy skepticism.

Ready for the big reveal? Scroll down.

We have to nurture a healthy skepticism toward outrageous stories whose depictions don't fit our understanding of similar events and situations, that violate commonsense expectations for the reactions of fellow human beings, and that aren't corroborated by other sources.

If we trust everything a given news outlet says, we risk allowing ourselves to be deceived.

Eric Sentell teaches writing and rhetoric. He is the author of How to Write an Essay like an Equation and Become Your Own Fact-Checker.
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