Monday, September 24, 2018

Opinion

Phrases damaging for free press

Editor’s note: An effort initiated by The Boston Globe encouraged newspapers to respond to attacks on journalists as the “enemy of the American people.” It called for participating publications to write related editorials on or around today’s date.The following is the Leader-Telegram’s contribution.

The phrase “fake news” used by President Trump is an insult to both journalists and news consumers.

It assumes professional reporters not only aren’t doing their jobs properly but that they’re doing them with malicious intent. It also implies that consumers of news aren’t capable of determining on their own what credible sources they can rely on for information.

“The key role of the press today and always in a democracy is to serve the public ... to hold power accountable ... to be a watchdog,” said Jan Larson, professor and chair for the UW-Eau Claire Department of Communication and Journalism. “Our first obligation is to the truth and to the citizens we serve. Journalism must be accurate and transparent. We verify information. We are independent of faction.”

Another phrase adopted by our president took that insult to a new level.

“We aren’t the enemy of the people,” wrote Judy Patrick, New York Press Association vice president for editorial development, as part of the Globe’s effort. “We are the people. We aren’t fake news. We are your news and struggle night and day to get the facts right.

“On bitter cold January nights, we’re the people’s eyes and ears at town, village and school board meetings. We tell the stories of our communities, from the fun of a county fair to the despair a family faces when a loved one is killed.”

Are we infallible? No. But no one is.

“Our work is guided by a set of principles that demand objectivity, independence, open-mindedness and the pursuit of the truth,” Patrick wrote. “We make mistakes, we know. There’s nothing we hate more than errors but we acknowledge them, correct them and learn from them.”

But that does not mean all information is equal, Larson said.

“Through reporting we provide context and the information our friends and neighbors need to make decisions about daily life,” she said. “Journalism provides a forum for public discourse and compromise on the way to addressing problems and developing solutions.

“Relevant, comprehensive, proportional ... these also are the hallmarks of what journalism should be.”

• • •

A report on a policy or comment is not fake news simply because it is critical of the subject matter. Journalists work too hard at their craft to have a story brushed off simply because a flippant tweet or ill-informed comment takes issue with it.

“News, by its true definition, is never fake,” Larson said. “The term is used as a tactic by some to dismiss accurate information counter to their views or agenda. These people — at best — prefer a journalism of affirmation rather than a journalism of information. At worst, they seek to manipulate the public for their own ends.”

A great benefit of the internet and social media is that a wealth of information is only a mouse click or swipe away. But that also has meant a proliferation of news sources, not all of which are legitimate. Shouting the loudest does not make one accurate.

“Journalism without an engaged citizenry is not enough,” Larson said. “Citizens have a responsibility to engage in their communities and to both support and demand the journalism needed to maintain a healthy democracy that allows all a voice.”

It’s up to us to provide the truth but often, as a consequence of the sheer volume of sources, it falls on the news consumer to find the truth. In journalism, we strive to inform, educate and entertain. We also aim to right wrongs. All of that gets compromised when unsubstantiated phrases such as “fake news” and “enemy of the people” put a dent in our credibility.

“The label ‘fake news’ undermines one of the primary endeavors — journalism — intended to hold individuals and institutions accountable to the public they serve,” Larson said. “As has been said, ‘Democracy dies in darkness.’

“If we abandon journalism we throw democracy away with both hands.”


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