I am a librarian. I spend a lot of time considering and working with information in many of its various forms, such as print, online, video, audio and so on. This helps at least partly explain my keen interest and love for daily newspapers. After all, as famed historian Henry Steele Commager noted about the social value of newspapers: “This is what really happened, reported by a free press to a free people. It is the raw material of history; it is the story of our own times.”
Commager and I are not alone in appreciating newspapers. Millions of Americans habitually browse their local daily paper. For me, this also involves regularly perusing local, regional and national publications, like the Pueblo Chieftain, Denver Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Such reading meaningfully shapes my views and beliefs about our local community and the world around me. This no doubt is influenced notably, too, by books and magazines, television, radio and conversations with friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. But the newspaper has held sway because it is such an affordable and handy means for accessing information about current events of interest and worth.
All this is changing. Evermore often I now find myself turning to the Internet for news and information. This includes websites hosted by well-known names such as NPR, BBC and other customary news sources. It also is Facebook, YouTube, Google and the like. Online information is readily available and the content is timely, both of which are valuable traits when it comes to news. The convenience and ubiquity of tablets, smartphones, WiFi and high-speed mobile data service only further encourage foregoing traditional print in favor of online news.
I am not alone in my changing routine. The Pew Research Center points out that print newspaper circulation is declining overall in recent years across the country and consumers are increasingly accessing their news online (http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/newspapers-fact-sheet/). Columnist and humorist Dave Barry put it this way: “Newspaper readership is declining like crazy. In fact, there's a good chance that nobody is reading this column.”
The newspaper as an institution in this country is precious. This is especially so due to the reporters’ adherence to a well-established code of ethics. These professional values—independence and impartiality, accountability and the public interest, truth and accuracy—have shaped our reliance upon daily papers as a trusted resource. Today, these standards are more important than ever as online fake news has become a topic of recent real public concern.
Newspapers are not immune to fake news. We only need consider yellow journalism controversies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as well as today’s tabloid journalism. These infamous approaches to news rely on hyperbole to sensationalize, exaggerate and even sometimes pitch questionable stories based more on fiction than fact in order to rile or unjustly sway public opinion. These distasteful reporting styles can use overly aggressive and mean-spirited tactics to smear, defame or denigrate. Importantly, great journalists and prominent newspaper publishers recognize such pitfalls and seriously consider how they report the news. They thoughtfully adjudge their customary social role as the “fourth estate” with proper emphasis on the independence and truthfulness of the press and its contribution to a functioning democracy. This lends legitimacy to newspaper reporting.
It also makes what is happening online today important to comprehend. The capacity in the modern electronic ecosystem to disseminate information, including misinformation, is unprecedented. This is why fake news is worrying. There is valid concern that journalistic values, which help assure (but, importantly, do not guarantee) veracity, are lost amongst the online chatter, and valid news becomes indistinguishably mixed with Internet-disseminated half-truths and downright lies. Fake news websites publish hoaxes and propaganda to drive web traffic inflamed by social media. They intentionally mislead and profit from readers believing the stories to be true when they are not.
Most reasonable adults turn to trusted experts for guidance on matters of most gravity. When I am seriously ill, I see a medical doctor. When my automobile quits running, I consult an automobile mechanic. When in need of legal counsel, I seek out an attorney. And so on. Most of us ask qualified authorities for help and advice when it really counts. But for our news are we to put our full faith in Facebook “friends” and the links from the first page of Google search results?
Online purveyors of fake news stories know how to ensure their falsehoods are embedded among the outcomes we first and most readily find online. What they publish is made to look and read as if it is bona fide when it is not. This problem has drawn numerous headlines in the wake of last year’s national election and now is more commonly recognized as an issue of public concern. It is why Internet and information gurus, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, are seeking strategies to try to stop fake news and tools like Hoaxy (http://hoaxy.iuni.iu.edu/) are under development now to help resolve this problem.
A complicating factor is the First Amendment of the American Constitution. It guarantees adults the right to read, view, listen to, and disseminate constitutionally-protected information, even, in most cases, when it is offensive, upsetting or just plain wrong. This liberty is fundamental to our democracy and rightfully cherished. It also means that citizens are obligated to take individual responsibility to try to discern what is true from that which is not. This ability is known as information literacy.
Founding Father Thomas Jefferson famously espoused the conviction that a well-informed citizenry is vital to our survival as a free people. This notion is grounded both in the First Amendment and information literacy. The latter of these two, information literacy, amounts to the proper exercise of the skills necessary to effectively evaluate information. This is an individual’s capacity to assess information for qualities such as relevance, authority, suitability, significance, currency, accuracy and merit.
Reporters have historically played a critical role in delivering reliable news stories. Our confidence in newspapers in some large measure arises from their championing a body of professional ethics that encourages accurate and honest reporting. We have learned to trust the newspaper press to provide candid and reliable coverage of things that affect our lives. As newspapers recede as a predominant medium for news, we must be concerned about the online forum newly filling this role.
Can we depend upon the Internet to reliably report the news? The loss of newspapers puts us at risk of losing touch with the journalistic standards that help ensure the news we consume is legitimate. This is why newspapers matter and why Internet fake news is a weighty issue of public interest.
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