Think it’s all “fake news”? Try living without it

By Caitlin Kelly

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American journalists are now in a defensive crouch, thanks to a President who attacks us, our work, our ethics and our intent every single day.

I’ve been working as a journalist for more than 30 years, published in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Irish Times, VSD, The New Zealand Herald, Sunday Telegraph and dozens of magazines.

I was a staff reporter at the Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News.

I love what I do and I’m proud of (most of!) our work.

 

I’m sick of hearing my industry and my colleagues maligned!

 

From The New York Times, (to which I contribute freelance):

Yet there he was in Phoenix on Tuesday, telling a crowd of thousands of ardent supporters that journalists were “sick people” who he believes “don’t like our country,” and are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.”

 

Let’s review:

Most journalists make little money. Some, like the late Kim Wall, have attended some of the most rigorous colleges and universities to learn our craft. While a corporate attorney fresh from law school might expect to make $150,000 to start — and millions if they work as a lobbyist or make partner at a major firm — only the highest-paid journalists, (those in television, a few columnists), will ever become wealthy through our work, regardless of skill, talent, experience or awards.

Unlike people who get up every day driven by profit and money (hello, billionaires), we do this work because it matters to us and to our audience.

Our work is team-oriented, not all about Big Stars who preen and strut and insist on our constant fawning and genuflection. There are some in this stratosphere, but everything you read, hear and see is the result of intense and focused teamwork, egos be damned. Yes, we make mistakes, but not for lack of effort — my Times stories are read and reviewed by three editors, each of whom can grill me for further detail.

— Journalists who lie and make shit up are quickly found out, shamed and fired. In a private business, people can (and do) get away with many forms of chicanery, unnoticed. CEOs of public companies make out financially for years like bandits regardless of their personal ethics.

— We don’t have to carry or show a press pass to do our jobs. We don’t have to pledge allegiance to anyone, a fact that makes some people very angry. How dare we think independently!

Our job (at its best) is to challenge authority, to read the fine print in annual and corporate reports, to FOIA the hell out of reluctant government agencies. It pisses some people off that we don’t just lie down and give up. Too bad.

— How exactly does Trump, or anyone, know whether or not we “like our country?” As if being critical of liars and cheats, dismantling false promises and fact-checking endless assertions is…unpatriotic.

As if “unpatriotic” even matters to us.

That’s not why we do what we do.

Also from the Times:

An element of presidential leadership that we are all taught in grammar school: its broad influence — how it can set a tone for others to follow.

Yes, mistrust of the media was growing even before Mr. Trump emerged on the political scene. But this much is unmistakable: The president is significantly adding to what is, without question, the worst anti-press atmosphere I’ve seen in 25 years in journalism, and real, chilling consequences have surfaced, not just in the United States, but around the world.

We do this work:

— to help audiences better understand a complex world, whether business, science medicine, politics, technology, environment.

— to hold the wealthy accountable to the remaining 99% of us. In an era of income inequality unprecedented in a century, it’s our job to question those grabbing the levers of political and economic power.

— to correct injustices: corruption, false arrests, police brutality, sexism, racism.

— to explain disparate groups to one another, presenting as many perspectives on an issue as possible. (Yes, many outlets skew hard right or hard left.)

— to connect the global economy to audience’s personal experience.

Yes, some of what we do is awful.

Some of it is wrong.

Some of it is poorly reported, poorly edited, poorly written.

It’s gotten so bad that a major women’s journalism group, The International Women’s Media Foundation,  issued a statement in reply to Trump:

“Journalists take incredible risks to bring us the truth.”

GLOBE

 

Would you really be better off with no news at all?

 

 

 

 

 

7 ways to consume media critically

By Caitlin Kelly

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out”

That’s how the best journalists think: tough-minded, skeptical, dubious, cynical, questioning.

Our job is to challenge authority, in its every guise.

To speak truth to power.

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One of the 20th century’s greatest journalists…

In an era of fake news, it’s absolutely essential to know who is supplying you with the information with which you are making key decisions about your future, and that of your town, city, region and nation.

You can’t make intelligent decisions based on garbage and lies.

I’ve been a journalist since my undergraduate days at the University of Toronto, worked as a reporter at three major daily newspapers and have written freelance for dozens of national newspapers, magazines and websites. Here’s my website, with some clips.

Seven ways to consume media critically:

1. Read, watch and listen to a wide variety of news sources, whatever your political leanings.

If the only media you consume keep reassuring you that your world is exactly as you wish to see it, you’ve got a problem. The world is a complex, messy place — comforting simplicity, while seductive, is rarely honest.

2. Get off social media!

If the only news sources you rely on are social media, you’re stuck in an algorithmic echo chamber. You’re doomed! See point one.

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The CBC’s logo — one of the many news sources I follow

3. Think like a reporter (and take my webinar to help you do so!)

That means questioning every single comment, data point, anecdote, story, and “fact” you are given — no matter at what volume and speed. That means your default position isn’t: “Oh, cool. I need to tweet that right now” but “Hmmm. Really? That sounds weird.”

4. Research the news sources you’re relying on.

Google them. Read everything you can about them and their history. Who is funding them? Why? Who is quoting them as authorities or experts? Why?

Every reporter in the world has a track record — if they’re the real deal. Google them. Go to their LinkedIn page. Watch their videos and read their work.

Working journalists are highly protective of their professional reputations as accurate and reliable because without that, we’re useless.

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We’re not robots. Use your brain!

5. Assume nothing.

Question everything.

Read every story, if in print, with a highlighter marker handy — and highlight every point you think dubious or unlikely. What conclusions did the reporter draw? Do you agree? Why? What makes you trust them? What did they fail to ask? Why? What assumptions did they make going into that story? Would you have done it differently? How? Why?

6. Talk back to the media!

Not simply on a comments page.

Write letters to the editor. Use their corrections editor or ombudsman to complain when you see lazy or inaccurate work. Email reporters and editors directly to express your concerns about their coverage — or lack of it. Be calm, civil and constructive if you want to be listened to. Thoughtful journalists are in the middle of a period (finally!) of self-examination, so your timing is good. Be an active participant in the flood of information out there, not a passive little nothing nodding your head.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

7. Know what’s happening in the media industry.

There are many places to follow news of what’s happening in the media world, from Columbia Journalism Review, Poynter Institute and Neiman Reports to Media Industry News; (did you know that Time magazine is in terrible trouble?)

When you start to understand the media ecosystem — and how these businesses are run and why some are succeeding and some struggling — you can’t really grasp how their products are created and distributed. Yes, it matters! Eating “clean”, locally or judiciously should also apply to your media diet.

Truth matters more than ever now

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s hard to express how horrified I was by this NPR interview with a happy and wealthy — and unapologetic — producer of fake news.

He makes shit up and earns $30,000 a month from it.

Here’s more.

Just give that thought a few minutes.

It makes my head spin and turns my stomach with rage and frustration.

You step into an aircraft — and assume that its pilots are well-trained, well-rested and sober, that the maintenance crew has been diligent and attentive.

You consume a meal at a restaurant — confident that your food is free of rodent droppings or chemicals.

How to slow or halt the production line of massively lucrative “fake news” sites?

As someone who chose journalism as her profession at 19, married to a photojournalist who did the same, this is no abstract issue to us.

It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.

Some of its most basic tenets:

You talk to real people — and verify their identities.

You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.

You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.

You go in person, regardless of comfort, weather or fear, to scenes of natural disaster and political upheaval — whether Venezuelans fleeing a country in meltdown or those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.

Back to fake news for a moment.

Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.

Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.

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Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.

I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.

But the bottom line of journalism  is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.

 

You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.

If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.

Maybe it affected your vote.

Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.

A recent study of 7,800 students, asking them to discern real news from fake, found that 80 to 90 percent could not.

 

Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.

Dig, dammit!

Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.

This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.

In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.

The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.

Are they accurate?

Deeply sourced?

Reported firsthand?

Probably not.

Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.

The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.

The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.

If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.

That’s journalism.

The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.

So why bother?

Pride of craft.

Because truth matters.

Now more than ever.