I am not Catholic, but I could not help but become fascinated by a document released by Pope Francis January 24 that denounced fake news – actual fake news, in which people intentionally circulate false information, often disguised as legitimate news stories.
The document, titled “The truth will set you free – fake news and journalism for peace,” contained the first words on the subject known to have been written by the pope since his election in 2013. In it, he called fake news satanic, and compared it to the devil’s use of a serpent to convince Eve to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, which is said to have led humans down a sinful path.
In other words, according to Francis, Adam and Eve were the first to fall victim to fake news.
Much more recently, of course, actual fake news has been used by its purveyors to discredit political opponents, which, according to U.S. and other nations’ intelligence agencies, influenced our 2016 presidential election and other key elections abroad. It has also been used as a tool to seek revenge and to harm people and institutions economically.
Also, obviously, the term “fake news” has been co-opted by the president of the United States and others who either don’t like responsible journalism or find its reporting inconvenient to their political or ideological agenda. Such rhetoric has become so vitriolic that it has enabled a marked increase in instances of harassment, threats, obstruction, arrests and even assaults on journalists.
According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, there were 44 physical attacks on journalists in 2017. There were 34 arrests. What the Tracker isn’t designed to note is that there were also countless occasions on which journalists were obstructed in their effort to learn the truth by public officials and institutions, including many officials in courtrooms.
Which is why I was so deeply heartened – also on January 24 – by what Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis said in a Lansing courtroom just before former Team USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison for sexually abusing young women and girls on the team.
“We, as a society, need investigative journalists more than ever,” she said. “What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting.”
The investigative reporting to which the prosecutor referred was done by a team at the Indianapolis Star beginning in 2016. But every single day, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, investigative reporters are uncovering corruption and shining a light on problems, their stories often serving as catalysts for positive change in their communities.
In Pope Francis’ document on fake news, he urged journalists to help stop actual fake news.
RTDNA humbly agrees, which is why in November we admonished journalists and their managers to take an active role in fighting actual fake news and the other kind of “fake news” claims by rebuilding trust with the consumers of their reporting.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Is your newsroom reporting stories that expose problems in your community, and then followed up with stories about potential solutions?
- Have you taken steps to protect the safety of your reporters and photojournalists, e.g., safety courses, self-defense training, extra security precautions at the station?
- Are you making an effort to speak to the public – on the air, during speaking engagements, and during conversations with influential people in your community – about the public service you regularly provide?
- Do your news anchors and reporters explain on the air, and/or on your station’s website and social media channels, the process they go through in order to report news stories?
- Do you publicly discuss the ethical dilemmas you face when reporting particular stories and the process through which you’ve gone to resolve them?
- Do you air PSAs that explain the importance of responsible journalism to your community?
- Do you, as a station executive, do on-air editorials in which you explain your station’s newsgathering philosophy and commitment to serve your community?
That aside, as I have so often done as RTDNA’s executive director, taking on the self-imposed mantle of defender of the First Amendment and press freedom at every opportunity, I remind you that the only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism.
And I urge you to take very seriously something else the pope said in his January 24 document:
Responsible journalism is “not just a job, it is a mission.”