Guest Column

Freedom of the Press in the Face of Fake News

What are the roles of reporters and readers in 2017? Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Editor's note: Jack Murtha, TAPinto New Brunswick's lead reporter, recently gave a talk on journalism at Rutgers University. What follows is a refined outline of what he said.

Let’s start with a troubling and consequential story that some of you might know. It’s about a reporter named Judith Miller. Fifteen years ago, she covered national security and the like for the almighty New York Times. She also did her job poorly when it mattered most.

Miller regurgitated information from her sources inside the Bush administration. The kind of information that claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And Miller wrote just that, over and over again, in the pages of the paper of record, before and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

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Some journalists blame her for beating the drum of war, if not outright helping to launch one. Some might say Miller was a purveyor of fake news. But, more accurately, you could say she didn’t act as a reporter must, if we are to maintain a free and adversarial press.

In some ways, the traps into which Miller fell are more prevalent and dangerous today than before. The journalists who don’t ask hard questions or challenge the president, after all, receive friendly scoops and pats on the back. The journalists who do hold his administration accountable get a cold shoulder or a mean tweet. But what’s at stake if we in the news business don’t act as an independent press should? I don’t know, and I don’t care to find out.

Now, before we go on, please let me make the argument as to why you should bother listening to anything I’m about to say.

My name’s Jack Murtha. I cover New Brunswick, Middlesex County and Rutgers for a hyperlocal news outlet called TAPinto New Brunswick. I report on everything from nitty-gritty city policies and school board budgets to feature stories on people in the grips of heroin addiction and aging neighborhood taverns. I’ve been covering this city for a few months. I report and write all day long, and I put plenty of effort and care into my work.

I got my undergrad degree right here, from Rutgers’ journalism program. I even wrote for the Targum. Next came a few years at a local newspaper in Monmouth County. Then I took on some debt and earned a grad degree from the Columbia Journalism School. After that, I interned at the Bergen Record before spending a year covering and critiquing all things media for the Columbia Journalism Review, the industry’s top watchdog.

Now I’m here. And I’m here, specifically, to lead a teach-in on freedom of the press in the face of fake news.

Let me be clear: I’m not here to outline my political views, whatever they may be, or denounce President Donald Trump or any other political figure. I’m here to describe the issues facing journalists and news consumers alike. Maybe we’ll come to a few ideas about what we can all do to make sure the press—and our audiences—grow stronger.

Last May, I published a story about journalists who had fallen for fake news. The term wasn’t exactly new then, but it had yet to reach the level of recognition it boasts today.

In my reporting, I found many journalists who saw fake stories from fake blogs and then wrote about those fake issues for respected publications. They worked for major outlets like USA Today, Bloomberg and, yes, even The Times. They were top journalists. And they messed up—big-time.

Just a few months later, it became clear that many social media users had fallen for so-called fake news during last year’s presidential election. The phenomenon was so widespread that some media intellectuals thought it might have affected the outcome. Facebook, meanwhile, hired editorial staffers to combat the problem.

All of a sudden, fake news became a household term. And politicians gave it their own meaning, designed to advance their agendas.

So let’s take a moment to discuss what fake news is and isn’t.

Fake news is sold as a new form of satire. Fake news is often written by people using pen names. Fake news is designed to stoke outrage, get clicks and make money. Fake news is hosted on websites with weird but official-sounding names like World News Report or Fake news seems like it could be real. Fake news is often partisan. Fake news tells people precisely what they wan’t—or don’t want—to hear. Fake news, as one prolific writer of it told me, is “red meat.”

But, most of all, fake news is provably and intentionally false.

Fake news is not, as some might tell you, published in The New York Times, The Washington Post or CNN, unless someone makes a terrible error. Fake news is not any story that requires reporting. Fake news is not defined by the use of anonymous sources. Fake news is not a story, even one similar to Miller’s, that merely contains factual inaccuracies. Fake news is not the intended product of the American mainstream press.

And fake news is not just a story that someone, including you, doesn’t like.

Fake news is probably not a good term.

But fake news has pointed out problems with the press and the public we serve.

More than ever, journalists must work to distinguish themselves from the buzzing hive of bullshit on social media. We can’t get it wrong, and we can’t be lazy.

The thing is, journalists helped give fake news power. We were too overworked and too hellbent on raising our audience numbers. We grew reliant on catchy, clickbait headlines. That environment bred fake news.

And fake news was so well crafted that journalists helped to spread it. Now we risk being labeled fake news, a term created for actual, deliberately fake articles, when we write something contentious or disagreeable. That title itself is a danger to a free press. Its use by those in power sows doubt and stands to delegitimize bold reporting. It’s a firecracker in the mailbox of an industry that mostly wants to transmit the truth.

And, more than ever, news consumers must work to distinguish legitimate reporting from fake news or, hell, even speculative, poorly-sourced or overly-partisan journalism. News consumers, after all, read fake news often enough that it became profitable. And we’ve all read enough low-quality journalism to support any number of weak real news sites. Now our heads are spinning. What can I believe? That’s overwhelming. But it also should inspire us to read, watch and listen better.

Read sources, both legacy and independent ones, and read often. Read multiple stories from multiple news sources on a single issue. Read beyond the headline. Read beyond your gut emotional response. Check out the publication’s “about me” page. Look up the writer. See what they’re about. Vet your news, vet those who report it and make sure they vet their facts.

That’s how we can beat fake news: by outsmarting it. But journalists and readers both need to outsmart it, and we need to scrutinize cries of “fake news” when made by any power broker—especially when that person is the subject of the story.

So it might seem like this country’s at a crossroads in journalism. Has the press become what Trump called “the enemy of the American people?” Or is Trump the enemy of the American press?

Each person has their own opinion. But I’d argue neither is true.

Painting the press as some subversive, rabid machine might be dangerous. It might force people to seek news from their echo chambers, whether that be through Breitbart or its left-wing equivalent. But this false characterization of the media may crumble in the face of strong reporting. Only the willingly ignorant can brush aside an important, accurate story.

To prevent that, Trump wants to go after leakers. That’s worrisome, sure, but it’s nothing new. Under Barack Obama, more whistleblowers who passed information to journalists were prosecuted than ever before. Journalists who protected their sources also felt the government’s wrath. They’ve been spied on, their phone records monitored and threatened with criminal charges.

Let’s go back to Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who messed up so badly 15 years ago. Even she spent three months in jail during the Bush era to protect a source before ultimately testifying.

Miller also won a Pulitzer Prize for post-9/11 work she authored as part of a team that included a reporter named James Risen. You might have heard of him. He has done excellent work on the surveillance state. He was also called to testify against a source, a request he passionately and repeatedly refused. He spent seven years working under the threat of jail before the Obama administration official let him off the hook.

Though not necessarily the norm, cases like Risen’s happen. They have for years. And it’s likely that journalists will continue to face retribution for good reporting.

Restricting access to the press secretary or the president and not calling on certain journalists during press conferences is concerning. But it’s nothing journalists can’t overcome. Good reporting requires a lot more than that, anyway.

Now what about local journalism? Is TAPinto New Brunswick staring down any new threats? How about The Star-Ledger—is New Jersey’s largest newspaper in trouble?

Well, the thing is, local journalism is always endangered. Most local news outlets don’t have the fancy lawyers and clout to force various governments to unlock their filing cabinets or quit harassing journalists. Money’s tight for most publications. I’m not sure anything or anyone can do harm to local journalism that the changing times haven’t already done. I hope I’m not wrong.

I urge you to keep up with local news sites like TAPinto New Brunswick and any other outlet covering your community. Your readership and your being informed of what’s happening where you live are in themselves a defense of a free press.

I also recommend subscribing to news outlets you like, if you have the money. The Times has seen a spike in subscriptions amid Trump’s rise. So have other newspapers. I started paying.

If the government wants to come after press freedoms, it will. Governments everywhere always have, at one point or another. If fake or overly-partisan news remains profitable, it will continue to pollute the media waters. But with a re-energized journalism industry focused on doing the best possible job and a reinvigorated and engaged base of news consumers, I’d put my money on the power of the press.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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