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Communicating in an Era of “Fake News”

This week more than 200 newspapers from Maine to Hawaii editorialized in unison in support of a free and open press.

No matter where you land on the political spectrum, it’s troubling that the media have to defend a fundamental First Amendment right.

“The true enemies of the people — and democracy — are those who try to suffocate truth by vilifying and demonizing the messenger,” wrote the Des Moines Register in Iowa.

But in this era of “fake news” it’s no surprise that we need to be reminded of the importance of free-flowing information in a democratic society.

With distrust in the media – whether manufactured or self-inflicted – at a new high, companies and organizations relying on media to distribute their information need to be especially concerned about media credibility.

As a former working journalist with a press pass forever taped to my heart, I’d like to share some thoughts that I believe have contributed to this issue. It turns out that understanding how media work – and discerning between news and opinion – would help to cool down the “fake news” mantra:

  • First, many people still don't seem to understand the difference between news and commentary. While newspapers have this clearly defined (editorial page, op-eds), the blurring line comes with cable news, where opined pundits co-mingle with straight news to cause confusion. It doesn't help to have a panel of talking heads dissecting the news and offering opinions, taking away from coverage of other news stories. It’s even more confusing when a cable-network anchor begins with a labeled commentary and then leads into the news. Our friends in the media need to do a better job of sticking to the facts.
  • Stories with anonymous sources are not automatically fake news. Among legitimate news outlets there are processes and guidelines for this. Only trusted, credible sources are used after much internal discussion. So to automatically cry fake news when an unnamed source is used is just not fair.
  • Have legitimate news sources made mistakes? Of course -- but they promptly correct them. Legitimate news organizations do not make up stories. Their business would quickly come to an end.
  • People need to get news from different sources. Do your research. Don't share erroneous information. Get out of their comfort zone to engage the brain.
  • Finally, visit your local media outlet. Meet the reporters and people. You'll see they are just like you -- neighbors, community leaders, PTA parents, soccer moms, you name it.

No branch of government is perfect. Nor is the Fourth Estate. But I shudder what would happen if the media were shuttered.

In closing I’d like to share part of a joint statement from a number of professional communications organizations, including the Public Relations Society of America and the American Advertising Federation:

“Today, we join with our compatriots in the news media to proudly affirm the Fourth Estate as a vital engine of democracy. Without it, and without freedom of thought and expression as provided by the First Amendment, informed decision-making is not possible and individual freedoms suffer. From a global perspective, journalism serves all people through ethical pursuit of the truth.

As organizations devoted to professionals across the communications industry, we are dependent on a free press, and rely upon it as we speak honestly and fearlessly on behalf of ourselves, our companies, clients and causes. A free press provides citizens access to information and opinions so they can make their own judgments.

We collaboratively declare our support for journalists who bravely seek the truth, focus on facts, and hold government, business and other institutions accountable.”

To generate results through the media, contact Thomas Becher, ndp’s senior vice president of strategic communications, at tbecher@ndp.agency.

 

 

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