April 25, 2019
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The free press’ quest for truth is more vital than ever

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Each morning, many of us awaken anticipating both good and bad things to come. To varying degrees, we turn to media coverage to keep us reliably informed. Ideally, what we read, hear or see is newsworthy, legitimate, balanced, well researched, documented and, most importantly, true.

Yet, times have changed.

Since the election of Donald Trump, who continually maligns our free press, reporters face an onslaught of challenges, including “fake news” claims and an erosion of trust in the very work they do. Despite countless false and misleading public statements from the president, the media has all but ignored these transgressions in what Nation columnist Eric Alterman calls “a campaign of normalization based on a combination of purposeful blindness, wishful thinking and a commitment to outdated professional mores.”

The role America’s press has also become more like entertainment, according to Charles Lewis, founding executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, “while too many journalists are adversarial only about relatively trivial matters such as sex scandals, ignoring fundamental abuses of the public purse and trust.” Over the decades, many commercial radio and television news outlets in particular have become primarily profit-oriented, tending more toward celebrity gossip and sensationalism rather than in-depth news coverage.

The long and short of it is that much of the American mainstream media is still reluctant to call out the lies perpetrated by the president, who has made more than 2,000 false and misleading claims in his first year in office, according to The Washington Post. The president’s excessive use of Twitter amounts to a blatant attempt to overstep legitimate reporting and speak directly to the global public, often as a showy distraction from his political opponents’ viewpoints and his controversial actions and preposterous behavior.

At the same time, the adage, “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” has taken on greater meaning for news consumers. This is especially true when we consider the fact that the average person tends to gravitate toward news that reinforces already strongly held beliefs, particularly in our increasingly polarized political, economic and cultural society.

Many news sources aren’t beholden to accuracy. The flow of information is riddled with politically, socially and culturally biased content, ideologically left, right and center. A recent Pew Research Center survey also revealed that about 20,000 jobs have vanished from newsrooms, particularly on the local level. “Local outlets play a vital role in defining and informing communities,” states Damian Radcliffe, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. “Fewer boots on the ground has created information voids that have been replaced by cable news, talk radio, social networks and news websites with questionable values or goals.” These outlets also tend to cater to what consumers and advertisers want rather than to strictly accurate accounting.

The integrity of hard-working reporters whose careers are rooted in unearthing facts in the name of a free, neutral, unbiased press is at stake more than ever. Journalists must revitalize public trust, and shine a brighter light on mis/disinformation, misleading news angles, propaganda, slander, false social media content, as well as fabricated and manipulated news content. And this is no easy feat, especially with a fast breaking story, where it is required to quickly put together, confirm and interpret facts under deadline. Factual errors do occur, and this doesn’t help media credibility, but the majority of news organizations work diligently to minimize bad outcomes.

The light at the end of the tunnel could be that news media are now becoming more vigilant against sending out inaccurate and misleading messages. We are seeing an upswing of investigative reportage, rigorous fact-checking, as well as less unfounded speculation and more exposure of full transcripts and the publication of raw footage of events that leave less room for doubt about the difference between real and fake. There is renewed adherence to verifiable facts, not approximations.

News comes to us from every imaginable source including blogs, podcasts, Facebook, Snapchat videos and word-of-mouth, but the bottom line for reporters will always be to uncover unknown facts that challenge our beliefs and to expose wrongdoing.

However delivered, the public need for probing, sound, nonpartisan, original reporting can never be underestimated. American citizens should not be underarmed with inaccurate or incomplete information when making important life choices, such as voting for elected officials to represent them. Journalists must remain our champions of truth and justice.

Leigh Donaldson’s writing has appeared in The Guardian US, Humanist Perspectives magazine, The Montreal Review, Gastronomica: The Journal of Food & Culture, The Greenwich Village Literary Journal, Progressive Media Project, Art Times Journal, American Songwriter Magazine, Portland Monthly Magazine and the Bangor Daily News. He lives in Portland.

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