Journalism that combats cries of “fake news”

Scott Stedman
Apr 4 · 6 min read

The following is an excerpt from Real News, my upcoming chronicle of the Trump-Russia investigation:

The way that news is reported is broken. This feels taboo to say in light of some of the hate directed towards journalists at the behest of the most powerful people in the country, but there is a problem at the core of news reporting that needs to be addressed.

At the core of the problem lies a wave of opinion and speculation creeping into news reporting. A common tactic among those who consistently try to delegitimize the press is to conflate the editorial section of a publication with the news articles. Too often now, these sections are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish.

From my perspective, I see three foundational changes that must be made by journalists to salvage the trust of the American people and fill the void left by figures from an earlier generation such as Walter Cronkite:

First, the hyperpartisanship in media for the sake of being entertain-ing has to be reined in.

Second, print journalists should return to the basics of journalism.

Finally, independent journalism must be recognized as an essential section of the media as a whole, so long as it doesn’t devolve into conspiracy theories and wild speculation.

Me vs. You Media

I like to think of the normal blue-collar American worker who comes home from a hard day at work and turns on the news to see what has gone on in the world. What he or she finds on TV, however, is anything but the news. It’s likely some Democrat yelling at a group of Republicans or vice-versa, with personal insults flying and a painful dearth of truth.

This attitude can also be widely found on social media, which has increasingly become infected with purposeful disinformation by foreign countries, bots, and trolls. These actors have no interest in sharing fact-based reporting, but rather feed off of the chaos and discord that comes from a hyperpartisan American population.

There is certainly a place for partisanship in the United States, though not in the world of investigative journalism. Disagreeing over politics and even slinging some mud is as American as apple pie. When there is no separation between these debates and fact-finding investigations, however, is when we as a population suffer the consequences.

In a similar vein, the “me vs. you” media is creating a dangerous echo chamber on both sides of the political spectrum. Studies have shown that people are becoming increasingly partisan and seeking out voices that affirm their political point of view. Social media is a culprit in this shift in approach from Americans, but not the only factor. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other platforms have certainly made it easier to “follow,” “like,” or “subscribe” to those who tell you what you want to hear. It’s the path of least resistance. TV news profits by making politics as divided as possible, turning the discussion of political and social issues into a sport, putting profit over people.

In these uncertain and divisive times, a quote from the recent Dan Rather book, What Unites Us, rings all too prescient: “[A] democracy requires open access to ideas. It requires a willingness to struggle and learn, to question our own suppositions and biases, to open ourselves as citizens, and a nation, to a world of books and thought. If we become a country of superficiality and easy answers based on assumptions and not one steeped in reason and critical learning, we will have lost the foundation of our founding and all that has allowed our nation to grow into our modern United States.”

It is more important now than ever for the press to recognize the commonality of the American citizen with his or her neighbor. The differences between us as Americans pale in comparison to those who wish to see actual harm to our democracy and institutions. Media that plays into the me vs. you narrative of extreme partisanship fulfills the wildest dreams of our true enemies around the world. There is nothing that Vladimir Putin, for instance, would want to see more than an America that became so hostile towards itself that it began to collapse from the inside.

“In recent years, Putin, his chief military strategist Valery Gerasimov, and other Russian leaders have employed disinformation to spread chaos for strategic effect,” a recent study in The American Interest noted. “The Kremlin’s goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos (that is, which is less susceptible to societal disruption) wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems.”

Our foes prosper when we let partisan politics take up more airtime than the reporting on facts without prejudice.

We must, however, always continue to debate the serious issues that face this country. It is in this arena that social media can play a profoundly positive role. Instead of stoking the fires of division and hatred, the press could use analytics to find out which issues Americans are discussing on social media and present reasonable viewpoints from a variety of sources. For example, exit polls for the 2018 midterm elections clearly showed that health care was the most important factor for voters, yet where are the debates and studies being broadcast on TV about the topic? Let the American people drive what the media covers, not the media organization’s bottom line.

Those in charge of major media organizations have a responsibility to publish rational, respectful voices. These voices can be from every walk of life with every political belief, so long as they stick to the issues at hand, and refrain from ad hominem attacks.

Journalism with Proof

Whereas anonymous sources and “palace intrigue” stories can easily be written off as “fake news” because of the lack of empirical proof, data journalism with documentation is much more difficult to dispute. This will require a shift in approach by journalists, as most major publications have largely moved away from investigative reports and have opted to focus on news that attracts a wider pool of readers, but investing time and resources into deeply sourced investigative data journalism is the path forward. This may not be sexy in a world of 280-character tweets and forty-second news hits on TV, but it is the necessary road ahead to restoring the full potential of a free press in America and combatting those who seek to discredit it.

I have taken this approach in my reporting, perhaps to a fault, to give the reader a complete understanding of how the information for a story was acquired and why it matters. In my view, it is absolutely imperative that journalists show their work, so to speak, and actually print the documentation that forms the foundation of a news story. Of course, journalists must still protect their sources and not give away any human intelligence that could be compromising in any way. Apart from that consideration, though, there is no reason to withhold anything from the reader.

Scott Stedman

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