“Instant certainty is the enemy of truth.”
That has been a constant refrain from the Deseret News editorial board. It once was the subject of a column and podcast by former opinion editor Boyd Matheson, who is now the host of “Inside Sources” on KSL NewsRadio. The need for it was powerfully reinforced this week as people reacted to a viral video out of Cedar City with instant certainty, causing real harm to people in faraway Cedar Valley High School in Eagle Mountain.
The lessons of this incident are painful on many levels.
Because so many people were instantly certain they understood the truth of what happened in a Cedar City Walmart on Halloween, and because they reacted so forcefully in their ignorance, false accusations were made against students, lives were damaged and fears were stoked.
It’s a classic case of a horrible situation becoming even worse because people chose not to do the slightest bit of fact-checking in an age when information is readily available.
The situation began when a group of young people wearing blackface and dressed as inmates, accompanied by at least one white person wearing a police costume, entered a Walmart in Cedar City. They were recorded on cellphone by a woman who confronted them — a video that subsequently went viral on social media. People then made the leap of associating the young people with Cedar Valley High School, presumably because of the word “cedar.” Some people went so far as to falsely tag and accuse individual students and their parents in Eagle Mountain as being responsible.
As a result, the high school, and one coach of an athlete who was falsely accused, were inundated with hateful phone calls, threats and accusations. As Kyle Dunphey of the Deseret News reported, the school fielded about 1,500 calls and 3,000 emails, shutting down its phone system. And the threats prompted calls to police.
The original problem — young people dressed in blackface — was despicable, insensitive and hateful. The young people involved deserved to be confronted, challenged and now educated about the wrongness of their actions. We sincerely hope they learned lessons that will change their perceptions and behaviors.
The subsequent problem — falsely accusing others through ignorance — was dangerous, calling down the weight of the worst demons of social media on the innocent teens named and their families, while casting a shadow over a school and community that had nothing to do with any of this.
In 2019, Matheson interviewed well-known journalist and author Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, who agreed that instant certainty is the bane of politics and other subjects of social discourse today.
Woodward said “people are so, ‘This is the way it is,’ there’s no alternative. There’s not another side.”
Woodward touched on this theme again during an appearance at a convention of the Society of Professional Journalists in Washington last week.
“We’re not showing up enough,” the Deseret News reported him saying to the assembled journalists. Reporters, he said, need to do more than text or call sources. They need to knock on doors and nail down information. Ben Bradlee, the editor of the work he and fellow reporter Carl Bernstein did on the Watergate scandal, would push them relentlessly to confirm facts and do more legwork before publishing, Woodward said.
Today, social media has given average people the power formerly reserved to journalists, alone. The question is, are Americans today “showing up?” Are they doing the legwork needed to avoid harm? Are they treating this power with the care it deserves?
“Embracing uncertainty requires real humility and courageous vulnerability,” Matheson said. He added, “Suspending judgment not only provides space for truth to be discovered, it is actually the only path that leads to learning, understanding and trust.”
That was said in 2019. We echo it again today. We wonder what we will need to say and hear in another three years.