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The dog whistle of ‘fake news’ requires more conversation about professional journalism

Elisia Cohen

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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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 11/06/2017 - 09:45 am.

    This is the era of “counter-reformation” in the information age.

    Your statement, “Journalism that uncovers bias, discrimination, injustice, and corruption is important to the health and well-being of our functioning democracy”, is exactly right, but people prefer to live in their own little ideological village with not much more in sight than the “rightness” of their own life and those who are most like them.

    The world is a big place, with lots of things going on that can appear scary, dangerous or just extremely different. It’s a biologically induced need to stay with that that you are most familiar with. Life becomes simpler, more predictable and comforting with the familiar.

    The old BK slogan, “have it your way”, which was read originally to convey an image of independence and choice, didn’t turn out to mean having a raw hamburger with sushi on top and leeks on bottom. It meant that you could devolve what already should have been a very familiar experience into the hamburger experience that was most comforting to you.

    The same with media. What was supposed to be a golden age of information has devolved to a way of consuming information that is most comforting to your world-view.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Dickinson on 11/06/2017 - 11:48 am.

    Thank you, especially for your first paragraph.

    I’m actually amazed that Ms Cohen’s article represents the first time in all this “fake news” frenzy that I’ve read something that clarifies the job of journalism, and it ain’t complicated. She points out journalists’ responsibilities regarding honesty, clarity and acknowledgment of mistakes toward informing, not persuading, their readers. Thank you, Director Cohen.

  3. Submitted by Noel Martinson on 11/06/2017 - 01:31 pm.

    Perhaps journalists and scientists should compare notes

    There seems to be much in common about a portion of our society that distrusts the news and evidence of climate change, Unfortunately.confronting an erroneous but self-comforting worldview with the best evidence available usually doesn’t pierce the bubble of fear or prejudice within which the cognitive dissonance of “alternative facts” can be enforced. .

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/06/2017 - 03:30 pm.

    One hopes that Ms. Cohen knows that there are millions of us out here, depending on the professionalism of true journalists–and lots of them–to save our country from a slide into a totalitarian government where whatever a powerful voice says is taken to be “true.”

    It’s frightening to see how right-wing forces are determined to undermine true investigative reporting by professional journalists, and how we can no longer rely on our federal government for any truths (the “washing” of the EPA’s website of all climate change research and the ban of the term “climate change” from the written and spoken vocabulary of EPA employees is just one example of our government failing us; the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United is another).

    There are truths out there. They are just not on Facebook or Twitter (investigative journalists have just dug up the fact that some Russian oligarchs have owned big chunks of both companies, by the way!).

  5. Submitted by Jeff Michaels on 11/06/2017 - 05:05 pm.

    The real problem in local journalism

    As with beauty, journalistic problems are in the eye of the beholder. “Fake news” is not the most serious issue facing journalism. A far greater concern involves liberal bias in the way news stories are or are not reported.

    For example, the recently released Donna Brazile book focusing on the 2016 presidential election has finally caught the attention of the establishment media. Locally, the Star Tribune fits that category.

    Interestingly and revealingly, our award-winning local newspaper has avoided providing readers with a very intriguing Minnesota angle to that national story. Fifth District Congressman Keith Ellison was in the running to be named head of the Democratic National Party earlier this year, the same position held by Brazile. Former cabinet member Tom Perez was eventually named chair. Ellison is currently vice chair.

    A fair and balanced news operation would have already contacted Ellison to get his reaction to Brazile’s take on the party’s failed election effort. But our local Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization has yet to run an article providing readers with his perspective on the various controversies and issues surrounding the book. Additionally, Senator Amy Klobuchar is being cited as a possible 2020 presidential candidate. What is her take on Brazile’s charge the party rigged the presidential primary in favor of Hillary Clinton? Again, our local newspaper is not providing readers with the local angle to a major story. And the Star Tribune does have a very able Washington D. C. news operation.

    Having read the local newspaper for decades, there is no doubt if this had been a Republican controversy readers would already have answers to those intriguing questions. Sadly, the Star Tribune is continuing its policy of protecting Democratic politicians who promote the liberal philosophy. And that is the biggest problem related to journalism.

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/13/2017 - 08:03 pm.

      There is another way ….

      to read the lack of coverage of which you speak Mr Michaels. That would be the Strib is so conservative that there is no interest in covering internal Democratic Party issues because it could give fuel to actually reforming the Party to become more of a people’s Party. And of course that would be dangerous to the pro business pro chamber of commerce position of the Strib. Only a complete data examination with a T chart placing every article or editorial in one column or the other since the paper was purchased by former Republican leader in the Minnesota Senate and local rich guy Glen Taylor. Here is link to an article from the Strib but not recent about Taylor political donations…..

  6. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/07/2017 - 08:12 am.

    Rose colored journlism glasses…not real world…

    I am surprised that there are no illustrations of “fake news” in this article. The evidence is abundant in our agenda driven media. One sentence that allows for the existence of possible “fake news” or “agenda driven reporting” is not an accurate description of the current state of “journalism.” It is not accurate reporting.

    The writer seems to recognize only the virtues of true journalism with little warning of the abuses in journalism. This is an illustration of the problem.

    I wonder how the writer feels about” tax-payer subsidized journalism” that consistently expresses one point of view or refuses to provide equal scrutiny to the politicians with whom they agree.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/07/2017 - 02:35 pm.

    Soft journalism

    What bugs me a lot is what I see is the reporting of soft journalism. These are stories that can’t be quantified or verified. The president was angry today. How angry? An eight. That sort of thing. These stories are dependent on the subjective impressions of self interested observers. We simply have no reason to believe whoever it was is tattling to the reporters knows what they are talking about. Another kind of story that drives me crazy is the one with the telling detail. A statue has disappeared from the oval office. What does it mean? A change in our foreign policy? That the president is a racist? That he isn’t? That it was our for cleaning? Who knows?

    We have as president, a man who is both unfit and awful. I know it, the people who voted for Hillary know it, even the people who voted for the guy know it. And I doubt if there is a journalist in Washington who doesn’t know that too, even the ones who are paid to ignore those facts, which by the way, does not exactly support the idea that journalists have standards. That being the case, it’s so important, maybe as important as at any time in our history for journalists not to overreach. They must be fair. And given our president, straight, objective and fair reporting is damaging enough.

  8. Submitted by Laura Hedlund on 11/08/2017 - 09:30 am.

    How to Pay for Journalism?

    What can help re-establish trust between journalism and citizens across the state of Minnesota and nationally? Follow the money. Who pays for journalism? Big advertising dollars from fast foods to pharmacy create systems. Would the Opioid crisis been brought to light earlier if Big Pharma was not a major funder of media?

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/09/2017 - 09:27 am.

    I’m a little surprised frankly

    Here we have a director of a school of journalism that starts with a mundane observation and then goes nowhere. So the function of a “professional” school of journalism is to produce professional journalists.Thanks for pointing out the bloody obvious.

    The problem with almost every attempt journalism makes at a self examination or self defense of it integrity is they simply cannot escape mundane observations long enough to make an interesting or poignant observation. Obviously journalist are supposed act like journalist, and journalist are supposed to adhere to some professional standards. However if you want to explore the declining credibility of “journalism” you have to delve into a far more complex set of observations. Suffice to say that the “Fourth Estate” is a complex entity that often serves power more often than challenges it in a variety of ways that have been well documented.

    I don’t have time or space for a detailed examination but the mission of training “professionals” by definition produces agents of the media “market”. A professional is after all one who gets paid to do something, and once a persons livelihood becomes attached to their journalism market forces can distort or determine the “truth”. So a FOX “journalists” get paid to “report” what they report on FOX, and NYTs “journalists” get paid to report what they report. They’re ALL “professional” journalists. Markets don’t promote ethics, they promote profit and earnings.

    The problem with Ms. Cohen’s thesis is that it pretends “professionalism” is the equivalent of “integrity”. That’s like assuming a professional athlete is less likely to cheat than an amateur athlete.

    There are a lot of reasons that heretofore “established” media have lost credibility over the decades. Some of that loss is justified, some of it regrettable. But the key to “restoring” credibility is to focus on intellectual integrity, not “professionalism”. The integrity of “professionalism” is a neoliberal illusion that assumes market participation i.e. “being professional” promotes honesty. While one CAN be a “professional” AND have integrity at the same time… it’s important to note that the latter does not necessarily result from the former.

  10. Submitted by Joe Musich on 11/15/2017 - 04:40 pm.

    Just like to point …

    the owner of a news outlet can choose who is hired. The fact of the matter people reflecting the he owners viewpoint can and have been hired. It is the owner who has the freedom of the press. Do you think this might affect journalism’s quality at all ?

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