Reflections on Journalism
By Naomi Creason, Michael A. Deas, and Lawrence M. Eppard
Americans have easier access to reliable information and high-quality journalism, and more of it, than ever before. It is true that there has been an explosion in the number of unreliable outlets in recent decades, from cable news channels (such as Fox News, MSNBC, Newsmax, CNN, and One America News Network) to partisan websites (Huffington Post, Breitbart, InfoWars, Truthout, etc.) to numerous talk radio shows. But there are as many high-quality outlets as ever before—we’ve identified more than 50 at our website (including the Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Economist, Axios, Politico, BBC, USA Today, and many more).
For our newsletter this week we thought we would highlight the outstanding work being done at these trustworthy outlets by dedicated journalists all across the country. So we asked three of our affiliated scholars with significant experience in the industry to provide their reflections on modern journalism:
Naomi Creason, Managing Editor at The Sentinel
Michael A. Deas, former editor at the Chicago Tribune and current journalism faculty member at Northwestern University
How Journalists Get to the Facts
by Lawrence M. Eppard
Jason Adrians is a wealth of journalism experience and knowledge. What follows are his reflections on how journalists get to the facts that he relayed to me via multiple conversations.
There is a lot that goes into getting a story to print, and how it gets there depends upon the particular story.
Some stories are basic and rather straightforward. A good example might be a local university putting out a press release announcing an upcoming event or important date (say an application deadline or big sporting event). There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of this information, so this story can go to print very quickly. Obviously, if the event is cancelled or changed in some way, the newspaper can run a follow-up piece alerting readers to what has been changed and why.
Many stories are more complicated, however, and involve more investigation to figure out the truth about something newsworthy that has happened. These stories typically come from sources in the community that journalists have developed relationships with over years and sometimes decades. These sources have a strong record of credibility based upon a firmly established history of truthfulness.
That does not mean journalists just take their word for it and simply repeat what they are told. Receiving this information is just the beginning of the investigation. Journalists and editors take time to vet the story, explore all of the angles, and make sure the sourcing is rock solid. No matter how much a journalist may trust a source, he or she always wants to verify the information. After all, different people involved in a story have different backgrounds, perspectives, motivations, and interests, and some are themselves stakeholders in a particular story. The journalist’s job is not to be the spokesperson for a particular politician or business or organization—their job is to deliver to readers a factual account of what is happening in their community. Journalists therefore consider the weight of all of the evidence and available information in order to figure out the facts.
Trustworthy news outlets have tremendous journalists who eat, sleep, and breath news, and they are relentless in corroborating their stories with as many credible sources as possible. They collect as much additional information as they possibly can to corroborate a news story. This not only includes multiple additional sources but can also mean sorting through numerous documents and databases as well.
Once a journalist has written a draft of a story, multiple editors will then subject the story to a rigorous editing process. Former Chicago Tribune editor Michael Deas says as an editor he would “cross-examine the story like a prosecuting attorney, vet all sources, and try to discredit the content,” and only if it withstood his scrutiny did it make it to print. This is a very accurate description of what editors do. This means double- and triple-checking the credibility of the sources providing the information as well as the accuracy, thoroughness, attribution, and fairness of the information itself. If a story needs more information, editors and journalists work collaboratively to identify and contact as many additional credible sources as necessary in order to nail down the story.
Newspapers also write much more in-depth investigative pieces on sensitive and/or controversial issues that they may work on over the course of several weeks or months. These stories rely on dozens of sources and sometimes go through a dozen rounds of editing, revisions, and rewrites. These stories also usually lead to anywhere between five and 50 follow-up stories given the importance and complexity of the issue at hand.
These types of stories involve not only journalists and editors, but sometimes representatives from the legal and human resources teams as well. When in doubt, journalists and editors contact these folks and have them review and help with the story.
Sometimes lawyers are involved in not only making sure the paper gets the story right, but in helping journalists get access to critical information in the first place. A good example would be when a governmental or other source is resisting the paper’s efforts to get access to information that the public is legally entitled to.
Regardless of whether the story is basic and innocuous or complex and sensitive/controversial, if the news outlet makes a mistake or there are additional developments in a story, they strive to quickly, clearly, and publicly indicate what the mistake or development was and alert readers to the new information that they have uncovered and how this further illuminates the issue at hand. It is inevitable that mistakes will sometimes be made—what is important is that news outlets are transparent and honest when this happens, and that they quickly rectify the mistake with information that gets readers closer to the truth.
In summary, trustworthy news outlets have numerous guardrails and safeguards in place to ensure that most of the time they are getting the facts right. These guardrails and safeguards include committed journalists all over the country relentlessly corroborating their stories with multiple sources, documents, and databases. They include editors double- and triple-checking stories for their sourcing, accuracy, thoroughness, and fairness. And these guardrails and safeguards include representatives from human resources and legal teams who are on call around the clock to make sure the outlets are getting stories right.
At numerous news outlets across the country there are journalists who, whether they feel like it or not, suit up and show up every single day. They are committed to making sure their communities are well-informed and getting the information that they need. They want to provide readers with information that is useful in their everyday lives. They want them to know that those in power will be held accountable to the public. They refuse to lose the public’s trust by taking shortcuts and so they make sure to go through the proper steps to provide their communities with accurate information. And when they are wrong, they stand up and admit their mistake and explain the additional information that they have uncovered.
The Importance of Fact-Checking
by Naomi Creason
In one of the trainings for newsroom staff provided by our parent company, Lee Enterprises, a group of editors were given the task of identifying a problem in a story.
The problem with the man’s recollection of history and his survival in the story, however, was that it was completely fabricated.
It was a reminder that fact-checking is important in every piece a newspaper produces, even feature stories about a local resident’s past. It also served as a teachable moment: how could news staff unwind a yarn when no one working there lived through that time in history and when confirming with another source is nearly impossible?
The lessons were literally in the details. The name of an organization that’s not quite right, a military unit that was never deployed to a certain area, a timetable that doesn’t add up; details in a story not only make it interesting to readers, but they serve as key elements for journalists and editors in determining if it holds up to scrutiny.
Confirming these details has never been easier with the internet, giving us access to government and official information that would have taken much longer to access in the past.
But as anyone in this country can currently attest, the internet has proven to be a double-edged sword when it comes to credible information.
For both news organizations and Americans, figuring out where information originates is not as easy as it seems. Viral social media posts do not always include the original post, conspiracy theories can change and evolve quickly, and those claiming to be “news” organizations promote stories based on very unreliable sources and information (and sometimes straight propaganda). And all of this information is intertwined on social media with headlines and information from credible news sources, making it more difficult for people to separate one from the other.
As Lee McIntyre explains in his excellent book Post-Truth:
“With fact and opinion now presented side by side on the Internet, who knows what to believe anymore? With no filters and no vetting, readers and viewers these days are readily exposed to a steady stream of pure partisanship.”
While it has become more incumbent on readers to do the due diligence to learn the true sources of their information, it has become just as important for news organizations to prove themselves with unbiased and factual reporting. And despite the challenges that the internet can pose, it has also opened avenues for journalists to keep ahead of the ever-changing landscape.
The “Journalist’s Toolbox,” an online resource operated by the Society of Professional Journalists, gives even local journalists a chance to make sure they are using the best sources, whether that be choosing from a database of experts, helping cover public officials who spread misinformation, helping with mathematical calculations, or learning more about First Amendment rights.
Though the toolbox is designed for journalists, other websites have started to offer fact-checking services, including a number that focus on reverse image searches. The effort is available to anyone who wants to find out if a picture being shared across social media is actually from the event, date, or even location that is being claimed, instead of from a different incident years ago and/or in another country.
Fact-checking may have changed from how it was even 15 years ago, but it’s these efforts that help keep the printed word more trustworthy in the age of disinformation. At my newspaper and at the 76 other news outlets operated by Lee Enterprises, our journalists and editors are relentless in getting to the facts and corroborating them with several sources so that our communities will have the information that they need and so that those in power honor their obligations to the public.
The Poisoning of the American Mind
by Michael A. Deas
With striking foresight, retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter sounded the alarm back in 2012 when he stated that a “democracy cannot survive too much ignorance.” During a “PBS NewsHour” interview in September of that same year, he added a footnote to his comment: “That is the way democracy dies.”
While journalists hold the powerful accountable, they can do only so much in facilitating a deliberative democracy—especially when a vast majority of Americans lack basic knowledge of government, democracy, geography, history, and the purpose of a free press.
In another example, a 2018 survey found the “average American to be woefully uninformed” regarding the nation’s history—in fact, only one in three would be capable of passing a multiple-choice citizenship examination.
To stem the prevailing threat to our democracy, I urge American high schools to toughen civics requirements. This would be a good starting point in helping to produce an educated electorate that can navigate and parse through misinformation. Currently, only 17 states require civics exams. This is especially important given that eight in 10 Americans get their news from digital devices.
We also need more organizations to help in the fight against misinformation and disinformation. Here at the Connors Forum we are trying to do our part.
Even though numerous reliable news sources, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, exist as public watchdogs, millions of Americans are skeptical of the news media. In 2016, 76% of Americans trusted the national news media—a number that has fallen to 58% today. It is even worse among certain subgroups. Over this same time period, for instance, Republicans’ trust fell from 70% to just 35%.
This is devastating for our society and our democracy. There are numerous tools that can help, from our own Connors Forum Guide to Trustworthy News Outlets to countless other resources on the internet, including Snopes, PolitiFact, AP Fact Check, FactCheck.org, Ad Fontes Media, NewsGuard, AllSides, and many more.
Authoritarianism is on the rise in the U.S. and our democracy is under threat. The impact of civic ignorance and misinformation/disinformation on our society is analogous to a cut that becomes infected and, when left untreated, worsens and soon poisons the whole body.
This is the way democracy truly dies.
Even more to chew on. . .
“The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. . . [These outlets] show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be.”
“The cognitive bias has always been there. The internet was the accelerant which democratized all of the disinformation and misinformation and diminished the experts. Democratization has led to the abandonment of standards for testing beliefs. It leads people to think they are just as good at reasoning about something as anybody else. But they’re not. . . There is a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where he is in the room with all of these goblets and chalices and doesn’t know which one is the Holy Grail. That’s where we are right now. We have the truth right in front of us, but we don’t know which one it is.”
“These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learn anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of laypeople lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge. This is more than a natural skepticism toward experts. I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers—in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”