Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Ethical Journalists Must Explain the Value in Good Journalism

Maygan Beeler

Provided via Centre for Research on Globalizataion

The proliferation of fake news is assuredly an issue that journalists will encounter as they spend extended time with family and friends this holiday season. People across the political spectrum are guilty of fueling the fake news machine by spreading fabricated stories. Inevitably, Aunt Susie read in her Facebook feed a story that proved Hillary Clinton faked a concussion to avoid testifying about Benghazi. She will want the journalist, her brilliant niece or nephew, to answer for this atrocity. To say the story is fake won’t be enough—and it shouldn’t be. Journalists need to explain their job and why it is different than the content fake news sites produced. It’s the responsibility of ethical journalists to make sure the public knows how to find reliable sources of information.

Media companies feed the public’s distrust of journalists

“If journalists don’t inform the public about what we do and why, we’re ceding the debate to those looking to vilify and delegitimize the press at a dangerous moment in history,” a Neiman Report article by Michael Calderone begins. We’re experiencing a moment in time when Americans are inherently distrusting of the media, and this perception is partially the media’s fault.

Large media companies are pushing for the freedom to fly drones in any public place to take photographs without restrictions. They’re choosing to ignore the need to implement some privacy protections in favor of access to information they believe will produce the best content, a Columbia Journalism Review article states. This is a mistake. The SPJ Code of Ethics recognizes the responsibility of journalists to minimize harm. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness,” the code reads. The public’s need to know will not be most important in every situation, exemplifying why some limits on drone use make sense. Journalists need to carefully explain why drone use is necessary at all, and how their organization will use it responsibly if they hope to win back public trust.

Social Media: A tool used by journalists, a weapon used against journalists

A BuzzFeed article reports that top fake news stories from this election cycle generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election coverage from 19 major news outlets combined. News stories can reach a huge volume of readers more easily than ever before. With the simple click of a Facebook “share” or Twitter “retweet” button, a new audience is exposed to content they likely would not have organically encountered if not for social media. This is great for journalists charged with disseminating accurate information to the largest possible population. This is terrible when you consider BuzzFeed’s analysis that reveals stories doing really well on social media are often fake.

A Vox article posted earlier this month explains why social media, Facebook specifically, perpetuates fake news so consistently. “Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes “ engagement”—and a reliable way to get readers to engage is by making up outrageous nonsense about politicians they don’t like,” the article states. Journalists would do well to explain this concept when faced with a conversation about fake news.

The idea of social media algorithms is also important to consider when faced with angry folks who can’t understand why a media organization “isn’t covering” a certain person or event they’ve decided is particularly newsworthy. In my own Twitter feed last night, I spotted the following tweet: “If you’re wondering why people have lost faith in today’s media an entire town is currently on fire and no one is talking about it #Gatlinburg.” This tweet received more than 400 retweets and more than 400 likes after one hour. Directly above this message, I found a news article about Gatlinburg that was retweeted by a journalist I follow.

The individual tweeting that journalists weren’t covering the fires in Gatlinburg might not have seen news stories on his or her social media feed due to the site’s algorithm. Or, maybe, the individual isn’t following many news outlets or journalists. Then, there’s also the possibility that there weren’t any news stories immediately available to this person because journalists were working hard to make sure they gathered accurate information before sharing it with the public.

At a time when instant gratification and immediate access to information is so prized, it’s easy to forget accuracy is a key element of good journalism. Journalists would do well to explain these concepts to anyone who asks why media organizations are scum, or ignoring the real issues, or acting on a personal agenda. If journalists don’t explain their job and work carefully to earn the trust of those around them by transparent communication and action, fake news with its outrageous claims and provocative headlines will continue to rule the day.

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