As journalists we can’t hide in a dark room, covering our ears with a pillow to drown out the increasing amount of noise and conflicting messages during the final two weeks of a contentious, yet consequential, election campaign.
But a lot of Americans do, at least metaphorically speaking, only to surface from time to time to check out what’s happening in their communities and the rest of the country. Sadly, what they see, hear and read during those moments may not be news from a trusted source of responsible journalism, even though those consumers are led to believe they are.
As The New York Times and AXIOS.com report, hundreds of so-called local “news” websites are popping up across the country, containing slurs against candidates and, often, disinformation about politicians. I say “disinformation,” because that’s exactly what it is – the intentional dissemination of inaccurate or distorted information that the purveyor knows not to be true.
That’s just the beginning of the problem. Sincerely not knowing the information is untrue or misleading, many people then engage in “misinformation,” the unwitting spread of inaccurate information by sharing it with their friends and family on social media or in other ways.
In late summer 2019 I spent a week in Chennai, India, at the invitation of a prestigious journalism school in the world’s largest democracy to speak with professional and student journalists, and community influencers, about how disinformation and misinformation had disrupted that year’s national elections there. (The trip was funded in part by the US State Department, and I agreed to participate on the condition that there be no restrictions on what I could say.)
India’s recent election cycle had been plagued with nation state-sponsored disinformation that was spread widely on social media websites and private group texting platforms. Large numbers of people believed the disinformation and, in some parts of the country, that led to rioting and horrific violence.
The United States hasn’t yet reached India’s level of mass gullibility, but it’s not terribly far behind. That is precisely why America’s television, radio, digital and print journalists – actual journalists – must double down on taking steps to inform voters, and the public writ large, about what Watergate-era journalist Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth.”
One way to do that is to heed the advice of the RTDNA Code of Ethics, the main tenets of which are truth and accuracy above all; independence and transparency; and accountability for consequences. Another essential way is to follow the guidance of The Trust Project’s #TrustedJournalism campaign, of which RTDNA is a founding partner. Both are invaluable resources to help journalists and news consumers alike separate fact from fiction, or fact from disinformation and misinformation.
This is Free Speech Week in the United States, and RTDNA is proud to help amplify the effort to protect the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the other four components of our very first constitutionally enshrined right. Its organizers say the occasion is an “annual, non-partisan, non-ideological celebration of the value of freedom of speech and of the press.”
“Non-partisan, non-ideological.” That’s exactly the kind of responsible journalism we must work hard this week and every single week to provide to the people who emerge from their metaphorical cocoon only occasionally, to the prolific consumers of news and information, and to everyone else.
Our hard work, assertiveness and persistence should have no other aspirations.