You’re not helping.
I know, you heard from a friend of a friend of a friend whose dad knows a guy, but let me tell you what reporting is like from the professional side of things.
We can’t print it, or broadcast it, or blog it, if we can’t document it. Why? Because it would be irresponsible. After you’ve worked in a few newsrooms, you detect a pattern. Most of the rumors that walk through the door are not true or are wildly distorted. Nine out of 10, easy.
We don’t pass them on because we can’t document them. But we check them out with reliable sources. But somehow, you coffee shop reporters know more than we do. Step up, Woodward and Bernstein, we’re hiring.
Society operates best when it’s dealing with fact-based information. Rumors hurt people at every level. They create unnecessary anxiety. Uncertainty creates paranoia. Pretty soon the stores are out of toilet paper.
Not everything is a conspiracy. Surprisingly our infrastructure tends to operate logically and effectively. I can’t count the times I’ve heard a breathless report about some insane thing that a government entity did, and yet, when you sort through it, there was a logical decision-making process involved. Do they make mistakes? Sure.
The rumor mill has always been toxic, and now social media is a cesspool of misinformation. And yet, research has never been easier. So if you’re going to be one of those “citizen journalists,” well and good. But research and provide sources. Make a few phone calls. If you can’t take to court or to press, it’s meaningless.
Case in point — I quoted six sources in a recent news story and used at least nine sources in total. I spoke to the people involved. Did you? Your barista doesn’t count. Does that mean I got everything? Of course not. But if I couldn’t substantiate it, it didn’t go into the story. But I’ll keep digging.
It has never been more important to have reliable information. A hot rumor on the internet ain’t it. If you don’t have a reliable source or two or three or nine, you’re just stirring the pot.
You’re just part of the problem.
And if you really do know something but won’t step up with the information, even “off the record,” you’re part of the problem. Exactly how are you helping? That whole “I’ve got a secret but I can’t tell” stuff is fine for pubescent girls. Grow up. Step up. Or shut up.
How can we all be better news consumers? Here are some thoughts:
- Since a free press is so critical to a democracy, the basics of journalism ought to be taught in every school. Kids should be able to judge what’s true and what isn’t. Good information empowers you.
- A very large percentage of all news stories start with newspapers. They’re picked up by other outlets, but the work in the trenches is most often done by print journalists. Every medium has its advantages and limitations. Radio has immediacy. With websites, radio and television stations can post text versions of their reports. Local television news is limited to expanded headlines, but seeing video of a news story is important. Newspapers are doing more timely reporting with their websites, too. If you want journalism to survive, support it. Buy a subscription to your local paper. Buy one to regional and national publications. Many have online options. Subscriptions defray the cost of the operation but advertising keeps the doors open.
- Know the difference between the opinion page and the front page, between a talk show and a news report. Understand the difference between “advocacy journalism” and real reporting. Fox News and MSNBC have an agenda. Both skew the “news” by omitting facts that might balance the report. Beware of sources that validate your biases.
- Here’s what journalists do when they see a “news” story on social media: They check the source. Look for a well-known source with a history of good (none are perfect) journalism. Some sources sound legitimate but are not reputable. Research the source. Google. Don’t just accept one story from one source. If the news is consistent from three sources, it’s probably legitimate. Fact check! Factcheck.org, Snopes.com and Politfact.com are solid resources.
© Tony Bender, 2020
Tony writes two weekly columns; this one appears in weeklies in North Dakota and South Dakota and in some dailies. Bender owns two newspapers in Ashley and Wishek, N.D. www.mcintosh-star-tribune.com. He also writes an exclusive weekly column for Forum Communications.