Journalism’s Ultimate Foe

This week in lecture, we Missourian reporters were presented with a set of important questions to answer, questions that have a multitude of different answers and solutions.

The question that everyone probably has an answer for: What is the greatest threat to journalism right now?

The even more difficult question: What can we do about it, and what makes us think that might work?

I’m fairly certain that most American journalists will say the current administration is the problem, and now that government officials can simply label something as fake news when it displeases them, it’s become harder and harder to convince people of the truth.

I agree, being despised and labeled as the enemy by the government is a definite problem. But there’s something else we as journalists should be equally concerned about, something we often overlook:

One of the biggest threats to journalism can, in fact, be journalists.

I imagine lots of journalists who read this would probably start screaming at me. They’d most likely rant at me about how we’re the informers of the public, the defenders of facts and truth, the watchdogs of the powerful, and how dare I even begin to suggest that we’re doing something wrong.

I am in no way saying that we aren’t all the things I just listed in that shouting match that only hypothetically happened. I’m just saying we could be doing a better job.

All too often, we leave ourselves wide open to errors and mistakes. I’ve been appalled to hear in lecture that many journalists don’t do accuracy checks with their sources or read their quotes back to them. How can the public believe in us if we don’t even bother to double check what we’ve been told?

Not only does accuracy checking cover your own rear, but it also communicates that you have enough respect for your sources to be transparent with your work. It also says you are open to the fact that you can make mistakes, and that you’re willing to listen and be corrected. If you aren’t going to check in with the people you’ve interviewed and make sure everything is correct, you will inevitably make some mistakes, and when you do these things regularly, it shouldn’t be surprising that the public doesn’t trust you to be honest and truthful.

Another trap we fall into as journalists is something we’ve been lectured against in class time and time again: Rushing. Sometimes, we get so caught up in a story, or we really want to hurry up and get out of the newsroom for the day, and we have that little voice in our heads saying something like this:

“Get it done get it done get it done right now this minute I must be first and I must go home and get the heck out of here.”

In class, I’ve been told that we need to slow down and not just publish for the sake of being fast. “It’s more important to be right than it is to be first,” journalism teachers tell us over and over again. This is usually followed by a story of an important article that was published in such a rush that a crucial fact was incorrect, and there is no shortage of these journalism horror stories.

Why is there no shortage? Because even though we all are instructed to take time and be sure we are right before publishing, some journalists just don’t do it. Journalists at every level in newsrooms become convinced that everything from a house fire to an in-depth profile needs to be published right now, regardless of how far into fact-checking you are, or if you’ve even bothered to fact-check in the first place.

If you or the staff of your newspaper are comfortable with publishing everything quickly without fully checking for accuracy, or if this is done just so your paper can maintain a reputation of being faster than others, then the public will be comfortable with not trusting this kind of journalism.

Now, I realize that I’m just a lowly college journalism student. I realize that the way the government looks at journalists right now is not acceptable and that we should stand up for press freedom in light of that. But while we’re looking for solutions to the antagonistic attitude and fake news accusations of the administration, we should also be looking carefully at ourselves. We should be examining all the bad habits we fall into that make it seem like we don’t care about our sources and finding ways to improve journalism itself from the inside. At the end of the day, we owe the everyday people of the nation that we cover our full attention and respect.

If you take anything from this rant (and I do apologize for ranting), let it be this:

  • Take the time to make sure your story is as correct as it can be. Do not rush to publish if there is even a possibility of an error on your part.
  • Do accuracy checks with all of your sources over everything they tell you, not just quotes. This should not be something you do only if you have time. Make time.
  • If anyone tells you these things are not important, remember that you ultimately serve the people above all else. You owe it to them to put all your effort into informing them correctly and getting it right.
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