An apple is not a banana. Professional journalists adhering to ethical standards of professional conduct do not knowingly produce stories that are not factually correct, are “hoaxes” or fake. When journalists make errors, they follow professional standards of retraction and correction to their stories. This process of validation and verification is how facts are tested, evidence is weighed, and stories of people, places, and events formed.
Why, then, does the public distrust journalists and journalism? And what can help re-establish trust between journalism and citizens across the state of Minnesota and nationally? Recently, there has been a lot of public talk about “fake news.” There has been less conversation about ethical journalism and standards of professional journalistic practice. It follows that it may be helpful for educators, journalists, and citizens (both those who subscribe to professional news media and those who do not) to participate in more conversation about what ethical journalism is and what the professional practice of journalism ought to be.
Though journalism is a profession, unlike many professions there is no governmental licensing. In order to have a free press the government must not have the ability to determine who is a journalist and what journalism is. Instead, that is for the ethical codes and norms of the profession to decide. While there are many writers, bloggers, and digital sources of information, not all that is written or blogged digitally online is journalism.
I believe that it is the role of professional schools of journalism to train students in ethical journalistic conduct and to prepare students for professional practice. Some people may wonder with a rapidly changing, complex media environment, how are schools of journalism teaching the next generation of students both to innovate and to improve professional standards? I can share that University of Minnesota faculty take this responsibility seriously. We work to teach students to discern the difference between news stories and “hoaxes,” to become media literate, to identify the importance of the First Amendment and freedom of the press to our democracy, and to uphold ethical standards of our professional associations.
Journalists are storytellers who investigate facts and present new information to the public that sheds light on contemporary issues. Professional, ethical journalism is a fact-driven enterprise. The business and work of journalism is to discover facts by processes of investigation and verification. Professional journalists and credible news organizations belong to professional organizations such as the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, Investigative Reporters & Editors, or the Online News Association. These societies provide a code of ethics, sets of ethical values expected to guide member conduct, and resources to help investigative reporters and editors establish codes of ethics/professional standards to share with their audiences.
The real “fake news” or “hoax” on the public by individuals seeking to undermine the press is the idea that there are no standards of professional journalism. Indeed, strong, investigative reporting that uncovers facts that speak truth to power is as prevalent as it has ever been. Professional journalists have uncovered patterns of child abuse plaguing the Catholic Church, documented the social support needs of wounded veterans and their families after returning from combat, and exposed a trail of corrupt attempts to undermine the U.S. presidential election by Russian officials, and many other stories. Journalism at its best provides systematic, in-depth, original, data-based research and stories with a focus on social justice and public accountability.
Journalism that uncovers bias, discrimination, injustice, and corruption is important to the health and well-being of our functioning democracy. Throughout history, early steps in the rise of authoritarian regimes often involve efforts to undermine press freedoms. At the same time, we should be wary of the “fake news” or “hoax” dog whistle used by public officials who wish to silence the free press. We also should be wary of “fake news” and “hoaxes” smuggled under the veneer of public writing that is not professional journalism. The current political moment seems to have reawakened interest in students’ learning about the First Amendment, freedom of the press, media, law and ethics, and media literacy. It is the job of citizens, with the support of schools of journalism, to support and defend it in public conversation.
Elisia Cohen is the director of the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.
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