I love gossip magazines; they are my one guilty indulgence. I know that half of what I read in them may be false, and until recently that rarely bothered me.
On a recent weekend, when I decided I would take a break from anything academic, I spent a lot of time reading stories about celebrities. However, this "rest" from reality resulted in my feeling more guilty than gratified. I started to wonder what the impact was of all of the celebrity "news" and other gossip I had hungrily absorbed.
I came to realize that reality, in fact, does matter to me. Stephen Colbert brought us the term "truthiness" what is now, in the Internet world of fast-track information, eons ago. The brilliant pundit/actor Colbert had us question the idea of "truth" as our politicians and media portray. For example, Colbert said, "I will speak to you in plain simple English ... I don't trust books ... Next time, try looking it up in your gut ... The truthiness is anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you."
The truth is reality does not matter so much anymore. From the recent revelations regarding Connecticut Democratic Senatorial candidate, Richard Blumenthal, who may have repeatedly misled the public about his service in Vietnam, to a recent report about students in high school who cheat, but do not view it as such, ideas of reality and truth seem to be eroding before our eyes. Consider the book Axolotl Roadkill by a 17- year-old German author, who liberally took passages from another book, Strobo, an author writing under the nom de plume, Airen. The former book is a national bestseller in Germany and has been nominated for a literary prize. Yet the author of Axolotl Roadkill reportedly considers her use of the other author's work as "mixing," not plagiarism.
Why is reality so easily distorted?
While cliche to blame the Internet, the enticement of immediate gratification from blogs, reviews, videos and other ways that media spreads like a virus on the Web, seems to contribute. Authors, bloggers, and news media are all competing for readers in an easy access, short-attention-span world. What seems to matter is the spin of a story and the attention it gets, as well as the comments.
Comments draw readers, and the more controversial the better, because people who comment on blogs and news stories then argue amongst themselves, hence drawing more attention of an article to readers. However, it is rarely the case that anyone steps up to comment on the actual factual nature of a blog or an article, and when they do, the comments are lost in a sea of voices.
And more concerning is that some authors feel free to post all kinds of advice related to health and medical illness that may not have empirical support.
As a reader of the Internet, I get it. There is a lot that comes at me and a lot to soak up. And as an author, I also want people to read my articles, but I think it is important that the truth does not get lost. As a close physician colleague always says to me, "At the end of the day, all you have is your integrity." So telling the truth and doing proper research might be worth more than tens of thousands of viewers.
While the current ways in which we seek media may be seductive, there is a social price we pay. Although it may not matter who is sleeping with whom in the celebrity world, several other current events do require the truth, such as the reasons why the government has not taken a more aggressive stance regarding the recent oil spill, or why barely speakable crimes of humanity are allowed to occur in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How -- and if -- we get the truth does matter for most of the events that impact our lives.
But where and how do we draw the line with social media and the Internet? And how is the truth being monitored? If politicians feel that lying is a minor infraction that will go unnoticed, and high school students feel that cheating is an acceptable means to get ahead, then perhaps it is not okay that I love gossip magazines.
For us authors, research and backing up what we say does matter, as does a commitment to the truth. Those of us who are privileged enough to write need to realize that we have a profound impact. Our egos, as measured in terms of views of our articles, should be the least of our concerns. We need to care less about the responses of the masses and be more mindful of the truth (and not the truthiness) of what we are writing about.