Here’s what non-fake news looks like

February 23, 2017

Journalists literally “make” news. They do not find it. They do not publish transcripts of reality. Even in their best efforts, they would not provide a copy of reality, but reality in a frame, reality enhanced, reality reconfigured by being heightened on a page or a screen, reality retouched by the magic of publication itself.

Whether it is Macedonian teenagers wanting to make a buck or far-right conspiracy-minded partisans trying to roil the waters, “fake news” is even more a part of today’s vocabulary than “truthiness” was a decade ago. The big difference is that the current President of the United States likes to grab headlines with reckless assertions that he then peddles to the public without evidence. Presidents have a bully pulpit. When they place troops on a battlefield, even many people who saw no point in war rally round the flag; when they have potentially cancerous polyps removed from their colons (Ronald Reagan), thousands of people pick up the phone and make colonoscopy appointments. If a President can inadvertently push people to undergo colonoscopies, what else might a President do by example or by words? When a President declares the news media the “enemy of the American people,” what might otherwise reasonable citizens be inclined to think?

This is a delicate moment, for no one more than journalists, whose job it is to make news, as it is a carpenter’s to build houses. But there are rules for both crafts. To make news, with all of its inevitable departures from reality, is not to fake it. Nor is it to displace an effort to capture something about the real world for the sale of a favorite candidate or cause. Genuine news, and not fake news or hyped news or corrupt news, puts reality first; it does not subordinate honest reporting to ideological consistency or political advocacy. It does not curry favor with advertisers, or with the publisher’s business interests, or even with the tastes of the audience.

For more than a century now, journalists have hitched their wagon to the star of trustworthy reporting. From the 1800s to the present, the dominant trend in the history of American journalism has been the professionalization of a staff of reporters who gather the news. Europe was not the same. There, one observer opined that “reporting is killing journalism”—that is, straightforward accounts of events of the day were taking the spotlight away from the discursive essays of political advocacy, theory, and philosophy that dominated much of the European press. Only in the 20th century would the European press begin to borrow US news techniques like interviewing and other practices that placed reporting first.

But doesn’t the US model of journalism deny the truth that presumed “facts” are just opinions in masquerade? That everything is relative, it just depends on where you start? Most college sophomores in their first philosophy class will walk in with the argument that “it’s all relative” and that no research, argument, or discussion can alter our preconceptions.

That’s why we call them sophomoric. On reflection, none of those students truly believes everything is relative. If one of the students, in the middle of class, feels a powerful and distressing pain in his chest, he will be concerned about what is going on. He can ask the philosophy professor for her guidance or he can ask the student at the next desk for her advice or he could call 911. Will he choose A, B, or C? C. He will seek medical assistance. Reality seems to be insistently knocking at the door, and a premature commitment to the universal proposition that “everything is relative” is quickly left behind. In a pinch, the student believes in facts, in expert knowledge, in scientific training, in clinical experience.

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When we want to know what is going on in the world, we do not call 911. We turn to professional news gatherers who have earned reputations for reliability. But how do we know which of the news providers around us can be trusted? Consider the following list of earmarks of journalistic quality:

  1. Willingness to retract, correct, and implicitly or explicitly apologize for misstatements in a timely manner. Zeke Miller, the Time reporter who on January 20 misreported that President Trump or his aides had removed the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office corrected his report in a dozen tweets within hours and apologized to presidential Press Secretary Sean Spicer (who accepted his apology that same evening). That is what responsible reporters and news organizations do. President Trump took years to retract his vociferous claims that Barack Obama was foreign-born and not eligible to be President, and he did not apologize.
  2. A reliance on professional ethics, including the following:
    • Accuracy. Spell the name right. Get the address right. There’s no “it’s all relative” here. And write a story that tells what happened, not what you think about what happened.
    • An interest in contrary evidence. “Report against your own assumptions,” my Columbia Journalism School colleagues tell their students.
    • Follow the story regardless of its political implication. If you are a reporter, not a propagandist, you will follow the story even if it may injure the career of the candidate or the party you personally favor or your newspaper has endorsed. The New York Times editorial page endorsed Richard Blumenthal for the Senate from Connecticut in 2010. But Times reporters broke the story that Blumenthal repeatedly made claims on the campaign trail that implied, falsely, he had served in the military in Vietnam. (He was elected nonetheless.) That same New York Times repeatedly endorsed Eliot Spitzer’s bid for office in New York, including in his race for governor in 2006. But it also broke the sex scandal story that led to Governor Spitzer’s resignation in 2008. A real reporter prizes a truthful story over partisan advantage or political preference, come what may.
  3. Reliable journalists adopt other identifiable features, too, such as the following:
    • Be calm and declarative. No hyperventilating.
    • Present multiple positions or viewpoints within a story if the topic is controversial and (unlike “false balance”) the various sides adhere to different values but are not separated by an acceptance of consensual scientific evidence and a rejection of it.
    • Identify your sources whenever possible. And acknowledge the gaps, inconsistencies, or insufficiencies in the information you are basing your story on.
    • Use commonly accepted data and databases and reliable authorities. If you want to write about whether more people rode the Washington, DC metro system on the day of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration or on the day of Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, ask the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which collects this data. If you prefer, take President Trump’s word for it—but then you are not a journalist, you are a sap. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he accepts figures that flatter him and refuses to acknowledge those that do not. Personal vanity is not a commonly accepted database.
    • Pursue evidence and leads that run counter to your hunches, passions, and preferences and, when that evidence pans out, give it appropriate attention in your story.

If you are hoping to write fake news yourself, mimic the above listed earmarks of evidentiary quality in news as best as you can, although you may then find yourself in danger of becoming a reporter rather than a hack.

Internally and externally, reliable news seeks ways to communicate its reliability. It is important that reporters develop a reputation, based on a track record, supported by the respect of their fellow journalists, by recognition with prizes, by promotion within news organizations that themselves have a track record of reliability.

Professional news reporting is not easy. Its place in the world is still young—it really cannot be said to have existed in a full-bodied way for much more than a century. That’s not a long stretch. But at its best it has proved itself a bulwark for accountable democratic government and a thorn in the side of autocrats around the world. Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting a youthful America from Paris in the 1830s, wrote of the American press that he did not admire its violent language, nor feel toward freedom of the press a “complete and instantaneous love which one accords to things by their nature supremely good. I love it more from considering the evils it prevents than on account of the good that it does.” I borrowed that wise thought to name a book I wrote in 2008, Why Democracies Need an Unlovable Press.

We still need an unlovable press. And today when journalism’s economic fragility sometimes leads it to prefer clicks to conscience, it may be particularly unlovable, but reporters maintain a fierce allegiance to its highest ideals, and this is a force with which its critics must reckon. Professional journalism is often a quick study. It is a “first rough draft” of history, not the last word. But it is the enemy of pride and pomposity and ignorance, and thereby a good friend of the American people.

Michael Schudson is a sociologist and historian of the news media and a professor at the Columbia Journalism School. His latest book are The Rise of the Right to Know: Politics and the Culture of Transparency, 1945-1975 and, with C. W. Anderson and Leonard Downie Jr., The News Media: What Everyone Needs to Know.