Fight fake news by backing real journalism

Front pages from New York City newspapers feature President-elect Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in New York City.
Front pages from New York City newspapers feature President-elect Donald Trump on November 9, 2016 in New York City. Getty Images

In the Intro to Mass Media class I teach at my university, my students had to write an essay on why audiences have become less likely to trust the news media. The essay deadline was just a few days before the election, so their opinions were primed by the nonstop campaign news on their televisions, social media and other sources.

Their essays spoke passionately about bias and agendas, inaccuracies and speculation, about being able to “tell” when a journalist is giving his or her own opinion.

They wrote about stories being selected solely to generate viewers, rather than because the issue was important. They accused journalists of serving corporate masters, advertiser preferences, and a thirst for personal stardom. They wrote of being depressed by bad news and sad news and “breaking news” that was hyped more than was warranted. They couldn’t understand why different news outlets had different information on the same story, or why so much of the news was wrong in the rush to air or publish it first. They wrote of going to the Internet to “verify” information they had heard or read somewhere else, and of not understanding why “the truth” isn’t told to them by the “news media.” They felt that the media “fuels fires” when controversial events happen, prompting protests and violence so as to then lure more viewers. They wrote of stories presuming guilt or innocence before the facts are known, of liberal and conservative outlets that hype one side and vilify the other.

Because this class is taught as part of a distance education degree program, the 58 students represented all ages – everything from traditional 20-year-old sophomores to 30-something military spouses, 40-something college returnees and at least one senior citizen. Most equated journalism with television. And only about six of the 58 essays were positive.

I responded individually to every student, doing my best to steer them in the future to solid sources of news, taking pains to defend the profession as not entirely being how they picture it, scrambling to explain to them that many of the online “sources” they turn to in search of the “truth” may in fact be special interest outlets that want readers to think they are journalists.

But then I realized the futility of my efforts. One college professor can’t reach everyone. And truth be told, some of what my students wrote was true.

Since the election, most of the attention about “news” has centered on how to get “fake news” off of Facebook and Google. Instead, why can’t organizations that care about good journalism launch a promotional campaign to teach the American public what a real journalist is? If you are reading this essay in a good publication, then you already know what good journalism is. Most Americans, however, do not. They are watching cable TV, and they are reading all kinds of sources of “information” on the Internet.

To reach them, I am envisioning a major new campaign on television, the Internet and social media. What could such a campaign tell an audience that equates nearly any source of information as “news”? These things, to start:

▪  Real journalists give their real names and real contact information – not blog handles that offer no way to learn anything about the identity, much less the credentials or partisan ties of the writer.

▪  Real journalists at real news organizations subscribe to a code of ethics, such as that of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Fake news” writers do not.

▪  Real journalists go out of their way to include knowledgeable sources on both (or all) sides of an issue. They do not generally get to include their own opinions in what they write – unless the piece is clearly marked as such.

▪  Real journalists have editors who act as a line of defense to ask for verification, edit for clarity and fairness, and sometimes demand more reporting.

▪  Real journalists recognize they should interact with readers and viewers, as their limited time allows. They don’t mutely hide behind websites.

▪  Real journalists work at news organizations where advertisers do not have the power to influence news stories.

Most of the students in my introductory mass media class don’t know these things, because no one has told them, and the one week and one essay they got to spend on the topic in my class has to cover too much. Still, it is far more than most Americans will ever know.

I envision commercials that feature real journalists who have to sit through six-hour city council meetings because something might slip in that is important for residents to know. I envision ads that spotlight the real (not “parachute”) foreign correspondents who sneak out video from Syria, wear flak vests in Iraq, or uncover corruption in Russia. I long for ads that tell the audience about the National Public Radio reporters killed in Afghanistan this year, about who they were and why they were willing to risk their lives to bear witness.

I want to see ads that call attention to the painstaking investigative reporting that is done regularly with far too little attention in places like Raleigh, Tampa, Seattle and Milwaukee. I want attention called to journalists who sift through government data, file public records requests, put crime numbers into spreadsheets and read endlessly.

I hope this campaign will highlight the many journalists who learned something in their reporting that contradicts their previously held expectations – and reported it anyway, knowing that surprising enlightenment is usually far more important than mere confirmation of preexisting beliefs. This campaign should help people to realize that real journalists are not their enemies and not part of a nasty and negative culture that seeks only ratings and brainwash. Or worse, seen as no different from the partisan and special interest creators of content on the web.

This campaign should also include information about how real journalism is funded. Don’t hide the fact that advertising pays the bills, but tell readers and listeners what it is that the ads pay for – and what the advertisers do not get in return.

Such a campaign should not feature the high-paid news stars from television. As good as some may be, they are not representative of most journalists, who do what they do for poor pay and crummy hours because they believe in it. To many of my students, every “journalist” is someone on camera.

Who should pay for this campaign? News media trade groups such as the Newspaper Association of America surely should do so. Think tanks and foundations that care about an informed democracy should pitch in. And philanthropists who hate to see the dark influence of those behind “fake journalism” should also consider contributing.

It isn’t enough to just watch real journalism slip out of the mainstream, where it more and more becomes the province of only an older, educated and more affluent audience. Real people need real journalism, too. Too many of them just don’t know it yet. Someone desperately needs to tell them that they do.

Cindy Elmore is an associate professor at East Carolina University’s School of Communication. Before getting her Ph.D., Elmore was a journalist for 18 years.