I am a Journalism professor.
I don’t teach fake news.
I don’t teach “Fabrication 101”, “Alternative Facts Seminar”, or “University Seminar in Making Stuff Up”. Teaching Journalism is not the teaching of the Dark Arts.
Most of my Journalism students are choosing to go into this profession because they have a passion for the topic and a desire to report news. They choose this major even though some of their parents, relatives, and friends tell them to go into another career, because of the perception that Journalism is dying and that they’ll eat Ramen noodles for the rest of their lives.
Journalism is an honorable profession. Brave journalists like Daniel Pearl, Steven Sotloff, and James Foley, who were beheaded and killed while reporting from the war-torn Middle East, weren’t risking their lives to report fake news.
Like other professions, Journalism has a Code of Ethics to adhere to. Pursuant to the Society of Professional Journalists Code, journalists are expected to seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.
The recent rise of fake news is concerning and dangerous. Many media outlets reported that dozens of Macedonian teenagers made large amounts of money by creating fake news reports related to the U.S. presidential election (mostly favorable to Donald Trump) and posting their stories on their websites and social media.
A BuzzFeed study showed that many fake news stories were getting more engagement on Facebook during the 2016 election than mainstream media news outlets. The perpetrators of fake news have no journalism standards or ethics to adhere to. Their main goals are to make money and to push an agenda.
But President Trump and his minions have been trying to play a Jedi Mind Trick as to what fake news is. They are calling any negative story from the mainstream media as being “fake news.”
This is a dangerous trend. Especially when they are putting out fake news on their own, such as Kellyanne Conway’s made up “Bowling Green Massacre” and Trump’s reference to a terrorist attack in Sweden that never took place. President Trump’s Tweet storm over the weekend alleging that leaks coming out of the White House were made up by the fake news media and fake news writers shows that he is willing to deflect any criticism as being Fake News.
In my book “Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias” (Prometheus Books, 2016), I discuss media bias, advocacy journalism, and the rise of fake news. I also have an extensive chapter setting forth tips as to how to become a savvy media consumer in light of fake news and Advocacy Journalism such as that practiced by Fox News and MSNBC.
Sadly, it’s come to the point where many Americans have more faith in advocacy journalism outlets and obscure websites that they know nothing about than they do the mainstream media. The mainstream media has been mocked and discredited so much in the last few years that people are going elsewhere for their news. Now, the Trump Administration is calling the media the opposition party and the enemy, and ridiculing media reports as fake news. Hostility towards the “liberal media” reached its peak last week when Montana Congressional Candidate Greg Gianforte attacked a Journalist who was just trying to ask him a legitimate question.
Media bias, fake news, and advocacy journalism has been a huge issue during the last year and will continue to be discussed and debated. Now, more than ever, people need to pay attention to source credibility and whether a media outlet has a specific agenda. It’s important for the mainstream media to continue to do their job as a watchdog on the Trump administration, even though negative stories and articles will be brushed off and criticized by the Administration as being untrustworthy fake news.
Mainstream media outlets have made mistakes and will continue to do so in the future. However, it’s unfair and disingenuous to equate these mistakes with the outbreak of fake news in the last year. The distributors of fake news are intentionally misleading people, while the mainstream media are trying to get it right. Conservatives’ allegations of media bias over the years have been exaggerated and overblown. Most media outlets are, for the most part, trying to be fair and balanced (not in the Fox News sense), and trying to report the truth. The mainstream media might not be perfect, but their roles will continue to be essential, especially in the Age of Trump.
President Trump’s feud with the media has had the effect of giving a jolt of energy to the Journalism profession. Hopefully, people will come to realize that most journalists are trying to report facts in a fair and truthful manner and that they are better, more reliable news sources than obscure websites and social media. I hope that my journalism students aren’t discouraged by President Trump’s attack on the profession that they want to go into and that they will be emboldened as to the importance that their future work will have. Perhaps Trump’s media feud will inspire even more young people to flock to the noble profession of Journalism in droves.
Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He is the author of “Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias” (Prometheus Books). Email: larryLTatkins@aol.com . Follow him on Twitter @larryatkins4 . This is a revised and updated version of an Op-Ed that he wrote for The Hill.