The surge of fake news during the heated election season and the attacks from President Trump and his aides should spark re-dedication among journalists to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.
The assertions of “alternative facts” have also triggered a wave of re-evaluating what truth and fairness in journalism should look like.
In a series titled “Challenges to Journalism,” the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Media is exploring those issues weekly, with the help of the Bluegrass and UK Campus chapters of SPJ, and other units of the university’s College of Communication and Information.
After an initial discussion by campus chapter co-advisers Al Cross and Dr. Mike Farrell, moderated by professor Scoobie Ryan on Feb. 9, the school hosted a panel discussion titled “The Cure for Fake News Disease: Truth and Fairness (and Balance?), with two of Kentucky’s most accomplished political journalists; a university faculty member who has been a newspaper editor; and a conservative critic of Kentucky news outlets.
Cross, director of UK’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, moderated the panel and began by saying that “fake news disease” can be attributed to the dominance of social media, “which lack the verification of traditional media,” and the growth of partisan and ideological media that appeal to a reader’s ”desire for confirmation, more than information. . . . These factors in many cases mean that there is no longer a commonly agreed upon set of facts on which to make public debate and policy making. All of this raises serious questions about the role in which journalists, journalism students and journalism faculty should play.”
The panel started its discussion by watching Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s recent Facebook Live attack on The Courier-Journal of Louisville and longtime reporter Deborah Yetter.
C-J columnist and former political writer Joseph Gerth said the story was accurate, but media critic Richard Nelson of the Commonwealth Policy Center said Yetter’s statement that the state attorney general is “defending” a new anti-abortion law failed to note that Beshear had not defended the law against a motion for an injunction against it.
Journalism professor Kakie Urch argued that the only thing missing from the story was the law’s impact on readers, such as “a trans-vaginal ultrasound of every woman seeking an abortion,” with some exceptions. “Those are real impacts on real people.”
Cross countered, “You can also argue that including that in every story is being too tendentious, that you’re trying to make an argument for people who don’t like the bill.” He said those are the kinds of decisions that reporters and editors must make every day.
Cross asked, “If you had to define three essential standards or elements for journalism, what would they be?”
John Stamper, politics and government editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, said that journalism first needs to be interesting. He added that it needs to be accurate, and as thorough as possible. But he acknowledged that staff shortages can present a problem: “There are lots of things going on that we just don’t cover because there’s nobody to cover it . . . stories that people may have found interesting.”
Gerth said honesty is an essential element to journalism: “Facts are facts and they aren’t going to change, but honesty is putting them in the proper perspective.” So is thoroughness, getting both sides of the story, he said, but “If one side is feeding you a bunch of crap, you have to call them out on it.”
Other panelists mentioned accuracy, in-depth reporting, and making sure that stories are important to the public. Cross said anonymous sources should be used only if a story is important enough and they are the only way to include essential information.
Have the concepts of fairness and balance changed in recent years, or do they need to change? “Yes” was Gerth’s immediate answer. “The standards of verification are a lot more strict than they are now than they were fifty, sixty, seventy years ago,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is a night-and-day difference.” He cited The Courier-Journal, where he has worked for 29 years, as an example.
Stamper said standards have not changed in his 15 years at the Herald-Leader, but what has changed the most is the style and presentation of stories, to drive readership: “Whether it’s in print or online, if you look at a newspaper from twenty years ago, it looks a lot different than it does right now.”
Nelson argued that the concepts of fairness and balance have changed because of how divided we are as a culture. “The disconnect is that when there are people in rural America that are pro-life or value religious freedom, and their thoughts may be different from somebody else’s in a city, when that’s not covered fairly, they’re feeling disenfranchised,” he said.
This has changed the standard of media outlets, he continued. “I think that’s dangerous for us as a people when you have such divided news sources,” that are not being objective and covering stories fairly, he said.
The rest of the series
The “Challenges to Journalism” series continues Thursday, Feb. 23, with a Bluegrass SPJ program for journalists and the general public, “Finding real facts in an alternative-fact world.”
A panel of local, regional and national professionals will examine the role of the news media and provide a better public understanding of how it works. The group also hopes to facilitate ongoing conversations about the importance of a free press in a democracy. The event will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in Room A of the Central Library, 140 E. Main St., Lexington.
Panelists will include Ryan Craig, publisher of the weekly Todd County Standard and president of the Kentucky Press Association; Tom Eblen, columnist and former managing editor of the Herald-Leader; Campbell Robertson, a national correspondent for The New York Times; Kathy Stone, assistant news director at Lexington’s WLEX-18; and Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank, and frequent media critic.
Moderating will be Ginny Whitehouse, Ph.D., a journalism professor at Eastern Kentucky University specializing in media literacy, ethics and law.
In early March the Media Arts and Studies faculty of the School of Journalism and Media and UK librarians will discuss the technology of fake news and how to expose it.
On March 8, the journalism school will host Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute, co-author of The Elements of Journalism, for a lecture at 3 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Margaret I. King Library in Central Campus.
In late March or early April, SPJ Ethics Committee Chair Andrew Seaman will visit.
In addition to the school and the SPJ chapters, the “Challenges to Journalism” series is co-sponsored by the school’s Scripps Howard First Amendment Center and Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, and by the Department of Communication in UK’s College of Communication and Information.
Traci M. Thomas works for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the
University of Kentucky.