Weaponized ‘fake news’ claims are now doing real damage

April 3, 2018 11:00

It should come as no surprise – although it is quite disturbing – that a new poll finds 77% of Americans believe responsible journalists report “fake news” at least occasionally. Thirty-one percent believe we report “fake news” regularly.
 
The poll, conducted by the Monmouth University Polling Institute March 2-5 and released April 2, also shows:
  • 25% believe “fake news” consists only of stories with incorrect facts.
  • 65% believe the term “also applies to how news outlets make editorial decisions.”
  • 42% believe responsible journalists report “fake news” intentionally, “in order to push an agenda.”
  • 26% believe responsible journalists report “fake news” due to an “accident” or “poor fact checking.”
Interestingly, these beliefs transcend respondents’ self-identified political beliefs. 89% of Republicans believe the news media report “fake news” at least occasionally, while 82% of independents feel that way and 61% of Democrats hold such beliefs.
 
Clearly, politicians and others who use the term “fake news” to describe fact-based news stories they either don’t like, or find inconvenient to their personal or political agendas, have been landing some punches. Most people – regardless of their ideological viewpoints – now believe we report incorrect information at least some of the time. Nearly half believe we do it on purpose to advance a particular agenda.
 
One can’t help but believe that this widely held yet inaccurate view of how responsible journalists do their work is, at least indirectly, impacting the way and the frequency with which journalists are obstructed, threatened, arrested and even assaulted.
 
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, seven journalists have been physically attacked so far in 2018. One has been arrested, just for doing his job. Seven others have been subpoenaed by overreaching prosecutors who are trying to get information from journalists to which they either are legally not entitled or are able to get from other sources instead.
 
Thankfully, as in the most recent case in Virginia, judges have usually quashed such subpoenas, but not before journalists have been forced to undergo the aggravation of getting an attorney and the dyspepsia associated with deciding whether to comply with the subpoena or risk going to jail.
 
Then there are these recent incidents:
 
  • A bill advancing through the Minnesota State Legislature would allow the use of cameras and microphones in courtrooms only if victim, prosecutor, witnesses and judge consented to have them. Minnesota already has some of the most restrictive courtroom coverage guidelines in the country.
 
  • On March 28, New York Daily News Albany Bureau Chief Kenneth Lovett was arrested by state police for the “crime” of talking on his cell phone outside the state senate chamber, which wasn’t even in session at the time. Lovett was released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo a short time later, and then wrote about the incident in the News’ characteristic tabloid style.
 
  • In Jacksonville, Arkansas, a suburb of Little Rock, the city attorney, who also serves as head of the city’s police department, on March 29 reassigned the department’s only public information officer and is requiring that all journalists’ inquiries go through him. As RTDNA member Austin Kellerman writes on his personal blog, the problem with that is the city attorney/police director never answers reporters’ questions.
 As I noted, it’s difficult to draw a direct cause-and-effect line between the public’s distrust of responsible journalism and the harassment to which journalists are subjected – be it passive, aggressive, or even passive-aggressive.
 
But one thing the Monmouth poll makes startlingly clear is that we, as responsible journalists, must be more open to our viewers, listeners, and readers, not just about what we cover but how we cover it and why.
 
It starts with transparency, as RTDNA Chairman Scott Libin wrote in February. And it also must include accountability. When responsible journalists make mistakes, as all humans do occasionally, their news organizations must correct the error promptly, hold those responsible answerable, and then disclose to the public how those responsible were held answerable.
 
There’s more to be done to rebuilt trust, obviously. Ask yourself these questions:
  1. Is your newsroom reporting stories that expose problems in your community, and then following up with stories about potential solutions?
 
  1. If you’re a general manager or a news director, are you making an effort to speak to the public – on the air, during speaking engagements, and during conversations with influential people in your community – about the public service you regularly provide?
 
  1. Do your news anchors and reporters explain on the air, and/or on your station’s website and social media channels, the process they go through in order to report news stories?
 
  1. Do you publicly discuss the ethical dilemmas you face when reporting particular stories and the process through which you’ve gone to resolve them?
 
  1. Do you air PSAs that explain the importance of responsible journalism to your community?
 
  1. Do you, as a station executive, do on-air editorials in which you explain your station’s newsgathering philosophy and commitment to serve your community?
 Remember, too, the mantra I and others have been reciting for more than a year now: The only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism.
 
To put it another way, don’t let the latest poll numbers get you down. Instead, use them as an incentive to double down on your personal efforts to help the public understand why the outstanding responsible journalism you do every single day is essential to their lives.