The Internet and the 24-hour news cycle has made facts more readily accessible to everyone than ever before. A smartphone is an encyclopedia in your hand, unimaginable just a few generations ago.
But in a bizarre dichotomy, misinformation continues to proliferate, particularly in matters related to science, health and politics. Some of it is simple human error or misinterpretation of events. But I am increasingly convinced that many commonly-held misconceptions are actively propagated by bad actors.
I spend quite a bit of time talking to people who’ve been duped by propagandists. These readers wonder, reasonably, why The Kansas City Star hasn’t covered a supposed story, or why key elements of a current event have been misreported.
By far the most common such inaccuracy I’ve heard about in recent weeks involves the Supreme Court’s June 30 decision in a case where Hobby Lobby and Conestoga sought exemption from the “contraception mandate” of the Affordable Care Act.
Fact: The court’s ruling means that “closely held” companies such as the plaintiffs have the right not to provide employees with any birth control methods they object to as part of their health care coverage.
The misconception, common in chain emails and among some broadcast pundits: The decision pertains only to four types of birth control in the ACA mandate, specifically two “morning after” or emergency contraceptive drugs, and two intrauterine devices or IUDs.
To be clear, this is absolutely wrong. While Hobby Lobby and Conestoga wanted exemption only from those four forms of contraception, which they consider abortifacients, the Supreme Court ruled that employers may withhold paying for any or all of the 20 different FDA approved methods of birth control they object to on religious grounds. The court further clarified that lower courts were to interpret it this way the day after the decision.
I can’t count how many people have insisted The Star’s reporting has been wrong on this topic, particularly in the two or three days after the case was settled.
But the misconception lingers over a month later. I heard from two readers about it last Thursday alone.
Of course I understand why this story is of such great concern to many people. It involves the hot-button topics of religion, birth control and the government’s role in health care.
Because we all bring our own opinions about these personal matters to the table, that’s all the more reason for journalists to be careful and specific when reporting on them.
That brings us to the question of why the inaccurate interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling is still circulating.
I’m not clairvoyant, but I feel confident that a large number of people passing along those chain emails with subject lines such as “What the media won’t tell you about Hobby Lobby” are doing so in good faith.
But there are clearly others out there disseminating this and other lies to sell books and tickets to speeches.
Misleading people by accident is forgivable — luckily, because we all do it from time to time.
It’s something completely different to deceive in the pursuit of profits, whether monetary or intangible.