By Carl Carter, APR
For years, I have lived and preached that the one non-negotiable principle for those of us engaged on communications must be to tell the truth. Because once you begin telling lies, people will find out and quit believing you.
We have a lot of terms for this. The old stodgy one is “corrupting the process of communications.” Informally, when there are no kids around, I usually call it pissing in the soup. For more than a century, most journalists have understood this and have spent their lives seeking to know, understand and report the truth about what they cover.
The year 2016 brought us the term, “fake news,” which went from obscurity to uselessness more quickly than any I’ve ever seen. We have always had the sensationalized news in the supermarket tabloids. In recent years, we had the political versions, mostly on the Internet. Closer to the mainstream, we had partisan TV networks (Fox and MSNBC) that allowed us to choose our entertainment/news based on our political beliefs. Somewhere in between was CNN, which was increasingly dominated by partisan talking heads arguing the days talking points. Entertaining, maybe, but nothing we should confuse with reporting the news. Let’s sort that out.
Lately, we hear a drumbeat declaring that all mainstream news is fake. It’s no longer enough to say that the Washington Post tilts left (which it does). Now the story is that it’s all fiction, no better than the fake news sites operated by teenage entrepreneurs to steal advertising dollars away from legitimate sites. That’s most assuredly not true.
So we enter 2017 in an environment where we are surrounded by the very dangerous idea that we get to pick our facts based on our beliefs. In that world, the idea that the moon landings were faked is deemed every bit as credible as the real history. Maybe climate change has nothing to do with carbon emissions, and vaccines really do make kids autistic.
In all of this, I recognize something I have seen and heard from many who grew up in alcoholic families, where the reality they saw as kids was denied and explained away. No, dad wasn’t passed out drunk on the lawn. He just sat back in the lush grass to take in the night sky. Of course he wasn’t face down!! Hush your mouth!
Like it or not, the mainstream media at the national and local levels are our best hope for preserving the traditional watchdog press. I work with media at all levels, and I can assure you that the higher up the food chain you go, the more professional and strict the media are about accuracy. When I work with the Washington Post or The New York Times, I find myself getting multiple callbacks — not only from the reporter writing the story, but also from fact checkers coming behind to make sure the reporter correctly understood and conveyed what I said. I’ve known this to take weeks. I don’t get to dictate the story, because they also call people with other viewpoints to get their perspective. The final story may not be to my liking, but it’s almost always true, and the facts are correct, even if I didn’t want them in the story.
The bigger mainstream media also have higher standards for accuracy, guided by some version of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.
The New York Times, the New Yorker, Atlantic, Newsweek and others are all doing work that has to be done. I look at them the way I do family. They’ll let me down now and then, but on the whole, they’re trustworthy. They keep the opinions clearly labeled.
Are they perfectly objective? No. If nothing else, bias works its way into the coverage by what stories they choose to cover, and from what angle. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll see this as different media report on the changes in federal programs. Conservative media will write about the inefficiencies in Obamacare. Liberal media will focus on the number of people who will lose their insurance coverage, and the hardships on them. But most of the coverage will be true, and they’ll get their facts right. And in both cases, reporters are actually doing their research, talking to sources, and writing about real things. We need them all, and more.
Let’s say you and I go to a party and mingle over the course of the evening. We might come away with very different stories about it. You might come away talking about the jazz band — its style, its history, and its success at getting people to dance. Another story might focus on a scene where somebody had too much to drink and started hitting on someone else’s spouse. Yet another might relate the conversation from a corner of the room where some business owners gathered and brainstormed ideas for doing business together.
One party. Very different stories. All true. It accomplishes nothing (and isn’t true) to label you as a liar because you came back with a story that wasn’t mine.
As citizens and voters, we’ll continue to have differences. That’s an essential part of a functioning democracy. We have a two-party system. Our personal values may determine which facts are more important to us, but we all have to have to understand that there’s a reality of facts that we can’t ignore.
So where do we find a reality that allows us to make sound decisions as citizens, merchants and consumers?
Nationally, go big. It takes a lot of people to cover our nation, let alone the world. There are a lot of important stories that can only be covered with big reporting staffs, which enable reporters to become experts in what they cover and to provide accurate, fair, reasonably detailed coverage.
Read and listen more than you watch. I’m not a fan of any of the cable news channels, because they’ve cut too deeply and filled in the air time with partisan hacks and talking heads who aren’t actually researching and reporting stories. My standard guideline is that if you’re watching a “news” show and there are more than two people on the screen, you’re watching a talk show — not news. It’s opinion. The old line broadcast networks, like the evening news shows of CBS, ABC and NBC, are still pretty good. They’re still reporting news gathered by real reporters. They just can’t cover stories in much depth.
Go straight to the source. In the last few years, we’ve gotten into the habit of using Facebook and Twitter as a source of news. This is unhealthy, because it’s easy to follow links to stories that really are fake or hyperpartisan. It’s also bad for the mainstream media, because they get very little money when you start on Facebook. This is one reason I almost never post links to news stories on social media. Decide who you trust and go straight there.
Pay for quality. Many of the national media sources, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, keep much of their best work behind pay walls. Do the right thing. Decide whose product you’re going to buy and pay for it. The people writing that news have to make a living too, you know. Lately, we’ve seen a nice surge in people paying for access to the Washington Post, the New York Times and other national media. This enables them to keep the reporters who do the work.
Unfortunately, this article pretty much ignores local media. That’s a story for another day. I promise I’ll get around to it.