Some thoughts from a working journalist
A few days ago I was at a local hospital for a routine test, and I got to talking to the tech administering it. She asked what I did. I said that I’m a journalist. And her reaction was very much of this era. She started talking about how she didn’t know whether to trust journalists—and that she didn’t know what to believe anymore. As her primary example, she chose to focus on coverage of global warming in the mainstream news media. Which she was very skeptical about. For reasons she had trouble articulating… or chose not to articulate. But it was clear that she wasn’t a big reader. And that she watched a lot of YouTube videos as a primary means of getting the information she used to form opinions on subjects of interest to her.
It was hardly the first time that I’ve heard this kind of thing. Whether the person in question has been a well-off high-achieving urbanite with a white-collar job, or a poor person working three or four bad gigs to make ends meet in the suburbs, many people in the US are increasingly left to their own devices when it comes to finding news about the world around them. Literally left to devices, too, in the sense that many news outlets have winked out of existence in the last decade—and that the smartphones, and tablets, and computers connected to the internet are where people get most of their information these days. Such devices being essentially magic boxes (as I like to tell my journalism students) with much of humanity’s knowledge about the world available at people’s fingertips, true.
Problem is, the magic boxes don’t come with a user guide to help people figure out how to know what information on the internet—especially a morass like YouTube—has any basis in reality and what information doesn’t. And pretty much anyone can build a significant audience on any number of social media platforms through a combination of dumb luck, the caprices of the largely opaque corporate-controlled algorithms that determine what information is presented to people searching the internet, and some raw talent or charisma. Although, paradoxically, most people that purposely try to build a large active social media audience will fail to do so.
So the knowledge people possess about critical issues of the day like global warming can be way off the mark… certainly when compared to top academics and scientists, whose job is to study the big questions of “life, the universe, and everything” as humorist Douglas Adams famously framed it. Or even compared to journalists who specialize in translating the work of such real experts into articles that pretty much any adult can understand.
And I didn’t put it this way to the hospital tech, but internet “experts” can be roughly broken down into two types: people like the aforementioned academics and scientists that study some aspect of the world deeply and use some variant of the scientific method—in constant debate with fellow experts in their field—to come to conclusions that they then share with other people looking for the best available information on that subject; and people who spew half-truths, innuendo, and basically whatever comes into their heads convincingly enough to be taken seriously by some portion of people searching for actual information.
Thus, when people tell me they don’t believe in global warming, it’s pretty easy for me to ask them about where they’re getting that information and then suggest other sources that might be more even-handed and careful about such a vitally important topic.
But when I took that tack with the hospital tech, she wanted to know how she could tell which news outlets were trustworthy and which ones weren’t—a very good question.
The first feedback I gave her is that journalists who report for those news outlets have professional training in discerning good information sources from bad ones. And most journalists that I’ve ever met are honest people. As far as I can tell from reading their work and working with many over the years, anyway. Asking her to take that anecdotal evidence for what she would.
Yet that obviously didn’t answer her query. Since telling a person “don’t worry your little head, just leave it to the pros” is not a very convincing response to someone who has every right to be skeptical about every piece of information she hears from sources she’s unfamiliar with. Including major news organizations like the Boston Globe that all violate journalistic norms at times. For reasons that are sometimes unclear. As with its embarrassingly bad cheerleading for the GE Boston Deal—which I dissected over several installments of a 13-part series of columns.
In any case, if journalists are trained to be skeptical about everything and everyone as our default position, why shouldn’t we allow for the same attitude in our audience?
Given that, there are a number of ways I could address why information published by journalists tends to be more trustworthy than a typical internet screed. The most obvious would be to talk about how I approach fact-checking articles I’m working on. And how I decide on which sources of information—including human subjects—to trust.
However, I think a better way to answer a question about why people should generally trust information put out by journalists as a group of professionals is not to just extemporize about my personal approach to journalism, but instead to point readers to one of the places that journalists look to decide the best way to approach our work.
As such, if I go back and sit down with the questioning tech again, I will point her to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Which is broken into four sections entitled “Seek Truth and Report It,” “Minimize Harm,” “Act Independently,” and “Be Accountable and Transparent.” The code remains a touchstone for thousands of US journalists and news organizations when thinking about the fairest and most accurate way to cover stories.
I will then bring her attention to the following relevant bullet points that demonstrate how journalists at reputable news outlets large and small approach the hard work of verifying the veracity of the information we report.
– Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
– Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
– Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
– Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
– Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
– Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
– Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
– Never plagiarize. Always attribute.
– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
– Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
– Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
– Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
– Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
There are many more points in the SPJ code, and I would certainly ask the tech and anyone that asks me why they should trust journalists and journalism in general to look the entire document over.
But, in conclusion, I will say to such folks and to you, my audience, that whenever you run into information on the internet that you’re unsure about, ask yourself if you think the people that produced it seem to be following the precepts of the above bullet points.
For example, consider the creator of a YouTube video claiming that global warming is a hoax. If the video’s headline simply states “GLOBAL WARMING IS THE BIGGEST FRAUD IN HISTORY,” did that creator “take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story?” Probably not.
Did that creator or any other talent in the production “verify information before releasing it” and “use original sources whenever possible”? “Hold those with power accountable” and “give voice to the voiceless”? “Avoid stereotyping”? “Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information” and “clearly label illustrations and re-enactments”? “Never plagiarize” and “always attribute” statements made in such work?
Having watched dozens of such productions, I can say with certitude that most YouTube videos attacking the reality of global warming followed few if any of the dicta of the SPJ code. Or of any ethical code. Or of standard journalistic practice in general. The most important maxim of which is oft-voiced by my colleague Chris Faraone when explaining why good journalists must do their best to verify every statement in their work before publishing it: “If your mother says she loves you, check it!”
Now, many YouTube video producers and supposed experts don’t claim to be journalists. But if you question videos you see on that platform on subjects like global warming, you should then seek out articles, audio segments, and videos on the same subject produced by professional journalists at any news outlet you’ve heard of: be it a big radio station like WBUR, a national newspaper like the Christian Science Monitor, or an independent weekly newspaper like DigBoston—and I guarantee you that you will see a difference.
And that difference is what comes of proper fact-checking and journalistic ethics. Are there journalists who lie, cheat, and steal? Sure. A few. As with humans in every area of endeavor. But in general, if you want to know what’s going on in the world, look to not one but many news outlets’ work on your subject of interest. Read widely among an array of journalistic sources—which was my ultimate advice to the questioning tech—and you’ll be more likely to come closer to the truth of any matter than you’ll ever get by listening to internet conspiracy theorists.
Full disclosure: Jason Pramas is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (and this is an example of me “disclosing an unavoidable conflict” as covered in the SPJ Code of Ethics… see how easy, yet important, that is?).
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.