Focus on truth in media, not fake news

What is news?

Whether you are a consumer of news, marketing or communications professional, reporter, writer, media relations expert or simply someone who cares about the quality of journalism and news, the current overuse of the term “fake news” does us no good. We need to quell the myths and start talking about truth in media instead.

Here’s the bad news about fake news.

First of all, the term itself is dangerous. News, by its very definition, is about facts and reality.

The job of journalism is to uncover and share truths with the public. Its central purpose, its reason for existence: to inform society about events, people and issues.

Putting the adjective “fake” in front of the word “news” doesn’t just qualify the type of news being referred to in the sentence, like saying “local news” or “in other news.” It’s far more treacherous because putting the word “fake” in front of any noun in essence negates the noun; the spread of the term “fake news” more broadly invalidates the meaning of the word “news.”

Secondly, real fake news (Really? We have to resort to language like this?) preys on and deepens a lack of news literacy among consumers. Bogus information has always been a threat to journalism, but in this digital age, falsehoods can be more easily disguised, more easily confused as news and more easily believed.

As Sabrina Tavernise wrote in her New York Times article “As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth:” “Fake news … is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.”

Hence, it is more difficult but more important than ever to equip ourselves and others with the skills and understanding of how the media works so fact and fiction can be easily distinguished.

We must elevate truth in media, and squash the false use of fake news.

As members of the media, it is also part of our job to breed greater understanding of what is fake is and what is not, and to help consumers and audiences know how to tell the difference.

Check the fact or fiction checklist.

Indeed, in today’s world, we all need to be fact-checkers. Help spread media literacy with this checklist to determine whether a story or article has been reliably reported or if it is indeed fake news.

Trust your instincts. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.

Be critical. Do your own research; do a quick search to see if there are other stories that can either corroborate or disprove the piece.

Check the comments. Other readers may have already debunked all or part of the article.

A few extra notes: Separate opinion from hard news when reading. Take hyper-partisan and heavily-biased articles and programming with a grain of salt as it is typically opinion and editorial presented in a news form. Also keep in mind there is a role for satire and the humor shared by outlets like The Onion, but it is not real news.

As the fake news phenomenon pervades the news industry and places the press under unprecedented scrutiny, the question is no longer: where do you get your news? We know more people than not get their information about the world from the constant streams of stories in social news feeds, some of which are true and some false.

The whole debate of 'citizen journalists' vs. 'the professionals' can be summed up in one phrase: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

'Citizen journalists' have arisen on the internet because large media outlets, especially television, have become corporate organs. They are not even timid and objective: agendas are disguised in insidious and subtle ways.

“Freedom of the Press” didn’t refer to the type of media outlets we have today. It referred to just about anyone who wanted to print something. Somehow, the legacy media outlets are trying to posture that they are “The Press” and it’s a rather empty claim, when you look at history.

What’s frightening is that many in the legacy media are attempting to stifle the competition by lobbying for laws against the “non-professional” media. And they’ve been coming pretty close to getting it done because they use partisan and skewed reporting to support the lawmakers who will do their bidding.

The ability to document events is only half of the story; a journalist also needs to be able to describe it successfully to whichever audience the material is being presented to. The term 'journalist' then runs the gamut of descriptions, all the way from a teenager writing thoughts in a diary for future reflection to Woodward and Bernstein trying to put truth and fact together on national matters of interest.

Many people are extremely disappointed with the current corporate climate and its effect on news gathering. In my own opinion, there are too many legitimate stories being swept aside by the legacy media, and the current crop of 'citizen journalists' are doing everything they can to correct this market inefficiency. Many of them do this work for free, which my opinion also tells me this is of more service to worldwide citizens then the current batch of legacy journalists.

I hold the opinion that the legacy media just does not want to admit that there are people who can be good journalists without extensive training. Of course, some are better than others, but practice and time are needed to train “citizen journalists" as well as traditional journalism students.

While formal training may speed up the process, I also find that this formal training results in journalists who need to be paid, mostly by corporations who have many conflicting interests leading to unreported news.

For those who have the opinion that bloggers can post whatever they want, I agree with that assessment. The competition on the blogosphere is pretty intense though, and bloggers who repeatedly post unsubstantiated rumors will be found out by their readers who are tirelessly looking for truth.

Just because the mainstream media has rules that they feel the blogosphere doesn’t abide by doesn’t always mean that these rules are being followed.

And this is the problem. While I’m sure that the legacy media can certainly point to examples of bloggers reporting erroneously and placing misleading facts in stories, their are plenty of examples that prove formal training at journalism school is no insurance against shoddy practice. Just because some of the examples of blogging may be in error does not diminish all examples, just like others do not apply to all journalism majors.

Therefore, I truly wish people would not lump all examples of 'citizen journalism' in with the bad apples that exist. The world is way too broad to be painted with such a small brush.

It is a shame, that venerable and solid media institutions have to fight for control of their staff because of cost cutting measures. No longer are we informed but dictated to by the corporate-controlled media, who feed us the pablum that they call news.

It is no wonder that 'citizen journalists' are now creating their own video and news, to create an independent, not controlled by the corporation media, that will give an unbiased and objective view of the world and the events that are happening on a daily basis.

I am glad that the internet exists, so that 'citizen journalists' can be a strong voice in the new media world. Cheap video, digital cameras, broadband, and the advent of blogging have brought about this idea of 'citizen journalism' to report the stories that are often ignored by the legacy media.

Bottom line, the more people out there who are reporting on events, the better. But I strongly believe that the idea of  'citizen journalism' needs to be abandoned. Heck, I even hate the term 'blogger'.

Journalism isn’t so much a profession as it is a craft with a set of values. You practice the craft and follow the values? You’re a journalist.

I’ve covered events, congressional hearings, and other issues as an independent writer and on behalf of other organizations. I haven’t always gotten paid. But I’ve never called myself a 'citizen journalist.'

On the other hand, I do think that when I do these things, I am practicing journalism. Not 'citizen journalism', just journalism.

If you report on, provide informed analysis or document events for the benefit of an audience in a true and accurate manner, that’s journalism. It’s ok, in my opinion, to have a slant or to call out untruths when you see them.

Some people think that reporting requires you to get someone to tell you 2+2=4. I’m not so sure I always agree. Facts are facts, and obvious facts are obvious.

But when you’re reporting a breaking story that isn’t a widely known fact, you should be checking on the veracity of the story. That means sending emails, making phone calls, or getting off your butt and talking to people, before you publish.

Publishing untruths is not only irresponsible, but it’s not journalism. It’s rumour-mongering.

Calling it 'citizen journalism' and holding it to a lower standard is nothing but a cop-out. Journalism is not a licensed profession, like law or medicine. But it is similar in that it has some fundamental ethical principles that journalists follow:

Don’t publish things that aren’t true.

Check your sources. Check them twice. If you’re not sure, don’t publish. Being right is better than being first and wrong.

Ask questions. Be skeptical. Don’t be a mouthpiece.

Avoid conflicts, or disclose them fully and prominently.

In reality, there is good journalism, and there is bad journalism. Whether you are paid or not is not at issue. The issue is how you go about doing it.

If your house catches fire, the people who put it out may be volunteers, or they may get paid. But they still go into burning buildings, and they all have the same commitment to doing it right.

Think about it.

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