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Fighting misinformation

Being a journalist in the ‘fake news’ era

UP graphic by Olivia Malick
UP graphic by Olivia Malick

Be a journalist, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

I’ve wanted to become a reporter since I was old enough to read a newspaper — I started reading in preschool. My parents used to laugh when I’d stand next to the pecan tree in our backyard and hum the opening theme and recite, “This is ‘20/20’ with Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters,” with a six-year-old’s enthusiasm.

Before the advent of the internet in the early 90s, I admired reporters because I wanted to be where they were, where history was happening, not just read about it later.

But the way that we consume and process news is very different now than it was in my childhood, and that change shows no signs of stopping.

Journalists face challenges — some new challenges, some old but in a new way.

People calling headlines that they don't like "fake news" wasn't a problem when journalists were trusted to report facts accurately. I recently asked someone who was alive during Watergate if Nixon's supporters called news that didn't fit their agenda fake. They said no, they didn't really.

In the digital age, misinformation spreads even faster than before. Trolls on sites such as create manipulated images during tragedies, like mass shootings, and tweet them, hoping news outlets will be fooled. I went to a journalism conference last year at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La., where Al Tompkins from the Poynter Institute held a whole session dedicated to just fighting misinformation.

Tompkins showed us how to reverse search images to verify their authenticity. The same goes for quotes and stories. Reporters also need to look at the source site to see how valid the website is. Journalists need to be verifiably accurate in an age when even the slightest misstep gives fodder to those who cry, “liberal media” and “fake news.”

Newsrooms are even facing terror threats.

A gunman killed five people at The Capital newspaper in Maryland, June 28, after a long history of threats. The FBI charged a man from California on Aug. 30 with threatening to kill Boston Globe employees, calling them, "The enemy of the people" — a statement often used by PresidentDonald Trump to describe the media. Another man ran his pickup truck into Fox 4 in Dallas, Sept. 5, spewing paper fliers expressing his rage over a 2012 fatal police shooting.

Someone called the TV station where I work part time a few weeks ago and said if we didn’t take a story down from the website, “You will feel the wrath bright and early tomorrow morning.” Two years ago, I was threatened by several women when taking photos outside a courtroom. They showed up at the newspaper’s office later that afternoon and demanded their photos not be printed.

While journalists in America are safer than in other countries around the world — the recent murder of Saudi reporter Jamal Khashoggi is just the latest in a number of murders and abductions abroad — the climate is becoming more and more hostile.

It’s not just intimidation and “fake news” accusations being thrown at journalists. Shifting economics has been hurting media for some time. While journalism is still strong nationally, local journalism resources are being eroded. Christopher B. Daly, a reporter and professor at Boston University, in a Washington Post column, wrote in July, “Without coverage at local and state level, misconduct will thrive.”

Yet, newspapers continue to make cuts. David Beard, a contributing editor at the Poynter Institute, tweeted on Sept. 28, “Stone cold: 1. Publisher gets staff together 2. Says there's an email out to those he's fired 3. Staff checks phones. 4. Meeting disintegrates. Today, at Oklahoma's largest paper.”

Ironically, as more people are becoming interested in the business of journalism — colleges are reporting increases in journalism majors — the “business” of journalism is suffering as media outlets seek to monetize their content.

So, why do it? Despite politicians claims to the contrary, journalists simply want to report — to inform, to educate and, yes, to entertain. The business may be changing — the modern journalist needs to be reporter, photographer, videographer and social media brand maker. They may be full time or part time or freelance, but they are conscientious and honest.

Oh, and yes, it is fun — just like they said.

Story by Eleanor Skelton, UP contributor

Category: Opinion