Fake news is the best thing that has ever happened to real journalism.
I mean the kind of journalism that requires serious work.
If you’ve ever spoken to a high school class or a civic group, then you know that the average citizen knows as much about gathering and reporting news as they know about brain surgery. The public does not understand how reporters and editors sift through potential stories, make decisions about what to cover (with disinterest for the partisan viewpoints), and then begin the process of accumulating information, discarding some of it, challenging “proof” that sources offer, and finally choosing the words that will tell the story. The public knows nothing of the editing process—how a good editor can approach a news article submitted by a reporter with skepticism. How—finally—a copy editor reads the article one more time and summarizes the 800 words into six-to-10 words that fit in the headline space.
Fake news has none of this.
Terrific reporting on the “fake news industry” in major publications exposed the process of creating a fake news story for these websites. If you missed it, it comes down to this: a couple of fake news writers sitting in a room with laptops searching for words that are trending on the internet, and then composing a narrative that uses as many of those words as they can cram into the article. There is no verification. No vetting. Just imagination.
This is a time when we can contrast for the public how carefully we approach what we do. The fact checking. The verification. The putting your sources’ words up against the public record. The calls to a source to explain what they meant, or to walk you through a complex government process because it’s your job to make sure it passes the smell test.
I was a panelist after the infamous Dan Rather reporting blunder on George W. Bush’s military service in 2004, and an audience member attacked the press on rushing to publish information and asked, “When will the media ever learn?” I stopped him and said, “We learn every day. Every single day in our newsrooms, we do not publish articles because there are no facts to support them. That is the part of journalism you do not see but it is practiced in newsrooms everywhere because we take the time to verify information. If we can’t prove it, we can’t print it.”
Sander Vanocur, a legendary newsman and the only living panelist from the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, once wryly described the film version of “All The President’s Men,” as “a movie about typing.” But Vanocur acknowledged that the best part of the book and film was that it showed how carefully Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward verified the facts in their articles. The Oscar for 2016’s Best Picture award went to “Spotlight,” another of those movies that showed how difficult the task of reporting truly is.
This is the difference the public needs to hear. But we must live up to the standards.
Try to disprove what you believe. The chair of my journalism department in college taught me this: “When you spend three months putting together your giant expose for the Sunday paper, spend three days trying to disprove it. You’ll either save yourself the embarrassment of printing a story that’s wrong, or you’ll be more convinced than ever that you’re right.” But how many of us do this? Or do we ramrod a story through our desks because we are convinced we spent so much time on it?
Treat each article as a proposal to publish. At a seminar for city editors, a speaker told us that we should treat each article turned in by our reporters as something we should consider for publication if it met our standards for fairness and accuracy. There was no guarantee to publish just because the article was written.
Practice disinterest. I never knew the political leanings of the best journalists I worked with. Their stories never carried a hint. They challenged the statements of sources regardless of party. The language of their articles used no jargon or labels associated with the sides in a controversial issue. We must get those loaded words out of our reporting if we want anyone to believe us.
As odd as it seems, the fake news phenomena has created the opportunity for a golden age for good journalism. We need to practice it and then preach it.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.