Is Fact-Checking the New Journalism?

There was a time when fact-checking was an integral part of journalism. But the two don’t seem to have much to do with each other lately.

Over 40% of fact-checking websites are entirely independent and structured as non-governmental or activist organizations. None of these fact-checking websites or organizations are in-house or directly a part of any media organizations. Not a one.

All great empires fall from within. The same is true for professions. The deterioration of journalism in the first two decades of this century only supports that age-old theory.

Remember Journalism?

I recall a time when journalism was one of the few remaining 18th century professions that not only survived the industrial revolution and technological advances, but grew from it and still prompted the utmost respect. “He’s a journalist,” they’d tell you before introducing you to a valued member of a community or guest at a cocktail party, often including mention of the well-known media this person was talented and admired enough to have bylines published in. This usually meant that this person had solid information that the rest of us didn’t. This person could answer questions and shed light on geopolitical outcomes. This person was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Because the journalistic profession was just plain awesome, in the traditional sense of the word.

My daughter is four. I wonder how she will view journalism.

My son, now 17, still holds great respect for journalism and journalists. Not the same level of respect and awe that I held at his age, but enough to make his ears perk up and his eyes grow wider when he’s in a room with journalists. His first in-person contact with journalists and media came at the age of 12. After being misquoted and misrepresented in a few of the interviews he gave, he quickly grew wary. While he still recognizes the significance of journalism in any democratic society, he tends to view and evaluate each journalist and the respective media brands they represent, instead of viewing and holding esteem for the profession and industry as a whole.

His generation, or the more informed among them, seem to judge each individual case — medium, journalist, article — as they appear and disregard the boundaries of trusted outlet versus tabloid journalism, that past generations once set and adhered to for well over a century.

The Journalist that we once knew is truly a dying breed today. And it’s their own fault.

My daughter is four. I wonder how she will view journalism. I can’t even fathom what her future view might be, because I couldn’t fathom that the profession would deteriorate so much, so quickly, so soon in the first place.

The Journalist that we once knew — the individual among us with the good sources and their facts all lined up in a row through editing, peer-revision, fact-checking, and sub-editing — is truly a dying breed today. And it’s their own fault.

Watching Journalism Fail

Almost five years ago, I sat in an office with the president, vice-president, and secretary of a national, independent journalists’ association in a small Eastern European country, going over recommendations and strategic points for their association’s representation in new media and online channels. The conversation quickly turned to casual shop talk and the degenerative state of the media landscape in many countries in the region. The focus, as one of the veteran journalists in the room pointed out, became the “young journalists” coming into the profession, their many faults, lack of knowledge, and eagerness for popularity, readership, and clicks.

All three journalists in the room, each of whom had seen their fair share of reporting under a communist regime, a war, the post-communist era, and then a fledgling democracy, seemed to agree that it was these young folks, who all seem “to think that any blogger can become a journalist,” were what was bringing the profession to its knees.

Hemingway landed in the newsroom of The Kansas City Star straight out of high school.

As an often opposed media consultant and non-journalist, I was used to a civil difference of opinion among such company. I begged to differ. I reminded them that many of the greatest names in journalism came from entirely different walks of life and academic backgrounds. I used Ernest Hemingway, an outstanding war journalist, as a common example. Hemingway landed in the newsroom of The Kansas City Star straight out of high school and, although he only spent half a year there, claimed that this short time and experience taught him the basis of all good writing, whether journalistic or otherwise — “Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative.”

Not that I could in any way or by any stretch of the imagination be compared to Hemingway or any other Nobel laureate, but I also reminded them that they had hired me, through recommendations, to advise them on their association’s representation and future in new media channels, while I had majored in Dramatic Arts in college and had learned everything I know as a media consultant through experience and work.

How do you expect young journalists to know what takes decades in a working newsroom to learn when there’s no one left willing to teach them?

I then posed a simple question, “How do you expect these young, aspiring journalists to learn the tricks of the trade — whatever their educational background? Experienced journalists are either sitting in offices like this one, have entirely retreated into other professions or are following the same clickbait trends that young journalists learn. How do you expect them to know what it took you decades in a working newsroom to learn when there’s no one left willing to teach them?”

The room fell silent. And to my great disappointment, because my questions were genuine. I agree that there’s a problem. What are the solutions? I was eager to know. I still am eager to know. What journalism has created, only journalism can undo. This too holds true, on every level.

2016 — The Historical Turning Point

Fast forward five years to the threshold of the Trump era in the U.S., soft dictatorships in some countries in Eastern Europe, atrocious autocracies in some Asian countries, confoundingly changing tides in Africa, and the rise of right-wing political groups throughout the world. And know that journalism is very much a part of it.

The lines between publicist, journalist, and tabloid hack have all been blurred, possibly beyond recognition. Is this article fact-checked? Is the source independent or government-related? Is it paid content and is it even labeled as such if it is? How do I find out? How do I know what I’m reading?

The lines between publicist, journalist, and tabloid hack have all been blurred.

History may very well show that 2016 was the turning point of it all. This was the year in which “fake news” became not only ubiquitous, but a household term. We’ve labeled it. Good. We now recognize it exists, even though we most often can’t recognize it when we see it. Except there is no such thing as “fake news”. Oh, the irony that we should label a fallacy with the word “fake” and not recognize it as such. Silly humans.

There is news and there is misinformation. The first is professionally sourced and verified information, as much as humanly and professionally possible, the latter are falsehoods that simply should not be spread and should be called out as such when identified. There is no in-between. If it’s fake it’s not news and if it’s news it shouldn’t be fake, in the vast majority of cases and as a rule.

IMHO, the term “fake news” and the acceptance of it in professional journalism and media is the final and deciding indicator that journalism has failed. Period. This is the end of a long-admired profession.

If it’s fake it’s not news and if it’s news it shouldn’t be fake.

But don’t take my personal opinion and word for it. I was prompted to share these thoughts with you after almost two decades of working with journalists and media in Eastern Europe, years of mingling and collaborating with top international media editors and journalists, and just after finishing reading a report recently published by the Reuters Institute for the study of journalism — The Rise of Fact-Checking Sites in Europe.

Among other things, the report indicates that, while some 60% of fact-checking websites and organizations are in some way related to media organizations, over 40% are entirely independent and structured more as non-governmental or activist organizations. None of these fact-checking websites or organizations are in-house or directly a part of any media organizations. Not a one. And only sometimes do these fact-checking organizations employ reporters and media professionals as part of their teams. They simply don’t find these positions essential to their work.

Journalism and the organized distribution of verified information no longer exist.

Remember when fact-checking was a part of the journalistic process and a part of every media outlet? Not anymore. And this trend is the same, if not greater, in the U.S. and globally. Journalism no longer owns or guarantees fact-checking. Media are now nothing but publishing companies. Journalism, as we once knew it, and the organized distribution of verified information - no longer exist.

I can’t fathom what the future will bring. I can’t imagine whether my now 4-year-old daughter will consume and trust Perez Hilton’s, albeit well-monetized, blog as much and in the same way that she will consume and trust The New York Times, the BBC or The Boston Globe. But I do know that none of those will be to her, or to any of us, what they once were to me.