The phrase “F#ke News” is taboo in our newsroom.
We don’t utter it.
We don’t acknowledge it.
But I’ve come to believe that journalists can’t just ignore the jab. With the 2020 election push underway, “f#ke news” will be thrown in reporters’ faces at every opportunity during campaign events and online as hashtags. “F#ke News” is a rallying cry for those who refuse to budge from their partisan-infused world vision and simply won’t believe fact-based reporting. Its aim is to delegitimize the work of journalists at the local, regional, state and national levels.
Interestingly enough, people are beginning to take the influx of misinformation into the civic dialogue very seriously. A recent Pew study shows Americans see “made-up” news as a bigger problem than violent crime, racism, illegal immigration and climate change. Here’s what caught my eye: While the adults surveyed said they don’t blame journalists over the issue, they do believe it’s the responsibility of media organizations to fix it.
So, what we have here is a bit of a Catch-22.
The folks doing “good journalism” with fewer and fewer resources are expected to also find ways to counter false narratives that fill the airwaves, social media feeds and partisan websites.
Sounds pretty daunting, if not downright impossible, right?
Journalists can help in this fight.
For the last few months, I’ve served as one of four national coaches with the Trusting News project working with media organizations on ways to educate their listeners/viewers/readers about why we’re worthy of their time, trust and yes, financial support.
Bottom line: Tell. Your. Story.
An organization can’t control how a competitor reports on a story, but it can control its relationship with the community it serves. For a media outlet, that means detailing things like its decision-making process, being transparent about the newsroom’s ethical standards, and most importantly, demonstrating credibility while holding a conversation with the audience.
Perhaps it’s as simple as finding different ways to talk directly to your audience, by using language like “We’re your neighbors (not “the media”). We want to tell the stories of this community. We care because we live here too.”
Remind readers balance is achieved over time. Even if they don’t check out previous coverage of a particular issue, trust can be built up if they know you invite scrutiny of your organization’s fairness. Phrases like, “We're bringing you a perspective that has not gotten enough attention,” “We know this is a complicated issue,” and “That's why this story delves into…” let them know editors and journalists are being thoughtful in their approach.
If a reader charges bias, media organizations should address the accusation head-on, like PA Post did earlier this year. Not every critic will be won over, but the effort will help others gain an understanding of how journalism works. Don’t underestimate how little most people know about the day-to-day workings of putting a story together.
Another aspect of the journalist/audience relationship not to underestimate is how local media organizations are lumped together with those on the national level. Often, the cries of “f#ke news” are reactions to partisan talking heads that fill hours and hours of the cable TV news networks’ lineups. Many local or regional outlets then find themselves dealing with an angry minority of people who associate the local fact-gathering journalist with the opinionated panelist on Fox, MSNBC or CNN. So, they blame any and all reporters for being biased or phony.
A prime example is a voicemail we received that checks off all the stereotypical claims against journalists. The anonymous caller described WITF and NPR as “radical,” “leftist,” and “anti-American.” Strong words aimed solely to troll journalists, without any specific criticism of our reporting or coverage. It’s a good example of what newsrooms across the country have been dealing with since the 2016 campaign.
Would those insults be voiced if viewers looked closely at local coverage of issues like education, health and the environment? Using a Trusting News approach, our program director wrote up an explanation of how member stations like WITF mix their work within NPR shows.
Implementing strategies like these (cheap, shameless plug: Sign up for a free coaching session) may not stop some audience accusations of “made up” news, but it should signal that your organization takes its responsibility of community service seriously. It also equips your team to be prepared to address generic claims over credibility with authoritative, thoughtful responses.
Media outlets can no longer just assume their audience will automatically trust their work. By emphasizing your ethics, guidelines and due diligence, you can re-establish that relationship. Make the case that you help them get outside of their bubble to consider other perspectives. Explain why their financial support is vital to you and the public service you provide to the community. Educate them that news organizations should be transparent about things like donors, correction policies, and editorial guidelines.
The upcoming presidential election is expected to be particularly ugly – and that means efforts to delegitimize the work of journalists on all levels will be on full blast. It’s never too early to start preparing the groundwork to ensure your good journalism does more than just informing your community. It will help your community understand the importance of what you do each and every day.