How real journalists can combat "fake news"

There has been a lot of discussion about "fake news," with much it it fueled by the rise of the Internet. It used to be that getting your story in the newspaper faced a certain high barrier. Your item had to be newsworthy, of course, but it was also subject to review and confirmation by the reporter or editor. Publication conveyed a certain amount of legitimacy. If a mistake was made, a correction would be run.

But something strange started to happen several years ago, and maybe it was started by our love and fascination with celebrities. News started to blend with "entertainment news." Suddenly, what was going on with the Kardashians was taking the space of stories about world affairs, wars, famines, etc.

So the professional bar was lowered so the "Caitlyn Jenners" of the world could jump over it.

Then in 2009, we had a second lowering of the bar, so even Dumbo the Elephant could jump over it. And that was the mainstream media's adoration of President Barack Obama. The media hated Republicans in general and George W. Bush in particular, so when his philosophical opponent was elected, what was not to love and support?

And the third bar-lowering was the media's wide acceptance of reporting what others wrote on the Internet as news. And this has been the most damaging change.

Just because a reporter reads something on a website, writing about it and citing the website as the source is not adequate. Either the reporter independently confirms the information as being true, or he relies on a journalistically credible source for confirmation. Otherwise, it does not get run, period.

This is a high bar, much higher than what the "mainstream media" now uses, but it is the best way to restore faith and credibility to journalism.

The mainstream media needs to stop unedited and unverified reporting. Nothing should be reported that hasn't been verified by their own reporter or by another journalistic entity. Maybe a national journalistic organization needs to establish formal rules of conduct, and members must adhere to the guidelines to remain part of the group. Over time, this would regulate the level of professional responsibility and would restore confidence by readers in the integrity of newspapers.

(Because of the changing economics of newspaper publishing, it is possible that each journalistic entity would not be able to cover a full range of news if everything had to be confirmed by their own reporters. Maybe one day, long ago, that was a possibility, but no longer. So perhaps this journalistic association should willingly share stories, much like the news organizations like AP and Reuters do, but with ownership by the journalistic group to maintain integrity. Newspapers probably cannot afford to have 10 organizations sending 10 reporters to cover one story.)

If some sensational story appears on some random website, it would not be repeated by the mainstream media unless one of its members had verified that it was true. Reporting a false story as news, and citing the publishing source as some Internet site which does not scrupulously follow the rules of journalism, would have to stop.

Years ago, if I went to the New York Times with the story that Bruce Jenner was going to be assuming the identity of a woman, I would be told, "interesting, but not something we would cover." Now, they would be arranging a front page interview expose. So the mainstream media needs to restore its news filters so that it specializes in real news, not entertainment news. Stop trying to cover everything.

Now you might think that readers would lose out on getting the latest information, and that would be true. But it would be greatly outweighed both by the confidence people would feel with real news and the weight that real news would once again have for telling the truth. And, likewise, these sites which do not follow journalistic practices would be seen as a much less reliable source and their stories would often be taken with a grain of salt. So in the long run, things would get much closer to a better balance than where we are now.

Let me give an analogy. We have medical doctors who work in hospitals and clinics, and we have tons of people in "alternate medicine" who are out on their own. People are free to go to either or both...but if you have a serious illness, you'd be a fool not to visit your doctor.

The media's conduct has turned everyone in the field into "alternative medicine" providers. That needs to be reversed.

Finally, the media has to stop playing political favorites. It is OK to have an editorial page and editorial opinion columnists, but there must be a clear line between those guys and journalists. Opinion pieces should be clearly identifiable. I would recommend a balance of editorial viewpoints but that isn't absolutely necessary so long as readers can distinguish between opinion pieces and reporting, and so long as there remains free-market competition among news media. We can have Conservative and Liberal newspapers based on their editorial pages, but their news organizations should be identical, and the rules they follow should be identical, and their fastidiousness for impartiality on their news pages should be identical, and any bias on those pages should be eliminated.

So each serious journalistic company needs to have a powerful ombudsman who can keep an eye on this and make sure it is followed to the letter. This should include correcting articles, issuing corrections on the front page, if necessary, firing reporters who cannot follow journalistic guidelines, and potential loss of accreditation by the accrediting organization if the ombudsman so recommends.

In other words, what needs to drive news reporting is the professional conduct of the reporters and their editors, and not the ideological beliefs of the Editors-in-Chief, or the owners.

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