We live in a time where fake news is abundant and difficult to discern from real news. Where the line between news and opinion can be blurred or not exist at all.
The National Public Radio weekly show, On The Media, posted online a guide to discerning breaking news after the Las Vegas shooting rampage. While the points were written from the perspective of “breaking news”, they are apply to all news reported and include: Don’t trust anonymous sources. Don’t trust stories that cite another news outlet as the source of the information. Pay attention to the language the media uses such as “we are getting reports” or “we are seeking confirmation”. Beware of reflexive retweeting or sharing of news. And most important of all in this writer’s opinion, compare multiple sources.
When it comes to online media, anybody can take $20 and start a website and become a journalist. That can be a good thing. The problem is anybody can take $20 and start a website.
You do not have to have formal education in a university or college to be a journalist. It can help. That said, if a 19-year old airport announcer plucked from northern Manitoba can work his way up to hosting the CBC’s flagship newscast for 29 years, anyone can.
To be a journalist, a responsible journalist, you have to report news with the purposeful absence of bias. The role of a responsible journalist is to report the story, the whole story, without the reporter’s bias coming into it. To present all sides of an issue as best as possible, and allow the reader to decide their opinion. If a person or organization will not talk to the journalist to give their side, you have to say that you contacted them and they refused to talk to you, or did not get back to you by the deadline. That still presents part of the story.
For stories to credible, you have to have sources who will go on the record. It is irresponsible to have only anonymous sources, or print rumour, gossip and innuendo. The latter three cross that oft-blurred line online between news and opinion. Publishing unedited press releases and one-sided opinion rants is not journalism either. It is a poor man’s version of a Rick Mercer alley-rant. People who do that should know better.
As traditional newspapers have their role, online-based media have their place too. Often news websites are more agile, able to report a story faster than traditional print, like radio or television media. That has challenged newspapers to adapt over time to a hybrid model with online and print available, like the Standard-Freeholder. It has helped advance the cause of responsible journalism.
A newspaper in the end is still a newspaper. The word newspaper means news, printed on paper. If it is not printed on paper, you cannot call your online site a newspaper. Well you can, but that doesn’t make it true. It may be overstating the obvious here, but a computer screen is not paper. As an online-based podcast or show is not radio, nor is YouTube television. There are clear definitions of what these sources are. Online is its own form, and while there are many credible sources out there, there are as many who are not.
The prevalence of social media and “reflexive retweeting”, or knee-jerk reaction sharing, allows fake news can spread like wild fire. Add into the mix click-bait articles that appeal to a reader’s bias or nosiness. It is a near-perfect storm for fake news to prevail. Ask yourself this: How often when viewing a post on Facebook or Twitter do you click on the post and read to the end before hitting the share button or posting a comment?
Readers have a challenging road ahead of them. More news sources than ever before. Inundating them with real news, fake news, and opinion. The signal-to-noise ratio is high. The reward, if you are able to pick the wheat from the chafe, is that more real stories are being told. That is what journalism is about.
Originally published in 2017 for the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder. This was my final column as a member of the editorial board at this newspaper.