Journalism Ethics: Battling Fake News

Journalism Ethics: Battling Fake News | UMassOnline

Journalism, an industry that has seen tough economic times in the past two decades, has become more important than ever.

A proliferation of online sites that offer “news” often are merely thinly disguised opinion pieces masquerading as real news. It’s made the case for good journalism stronger than ever.

In the most extreme cases, such as what happened on Facebook during the 2016 election, “facts” are completely fabricated. In short, “fake news.”

It’s a dangerous trend. Distorted information leads to misinformed people. That can go beyond just influencing votes.

In one of the most extreme examples, a North Carolina man took a ludicrous story he saw on Facebook about Hillary Clinton running a child slavery ring out of a Washington D.C. restaurant and showed up at the restaurant armed and ready to take action.

How to combat this? By educating a new generation of journalists on how to combat “fake news” with a renewed focus on ethics and fact-based reporting.

The Importance of Journalism

Journalism has long served as one of the most important aspects of a democracy. In fact, as noted by the University of Massachusetts on its Bachelor of Arts in Journalism Studies Concentration web page, Pedro Torres, Editor of El Diario de Juarez in Mexico, goes as far as to say that “without journalism there’s no democracy.”

But journalists face a tough climate. Already racked by years of financial woes as the Internet slowly drove more and more newspapers out of existence, journalism now faces disapproval from the very people they seek to inform.

Students entering one journalism program wrote essays on why people distrust the news media more than ever. Their ideas cover many of the issues that have surfaced in recent years. They include:

  • New outlets running sensational stories to draw viewers rather than stories that are important and informative
  • Concerns about how different news outlets choose different stories to report on
  • Confusion over how some media outlets have completely different stories on the same issue as other media outlets
  • Concerns the media stokes the fire on issues that separate people to attract more viewers or readers

All this has created a situation where highly qualified, educated journalists are needed to combat these issues and the rise of “fake news.”

What Journalists Can Do

The first step in creating a better environment for journalism in the U.S. and around the world is entry into the profession of those have studied communications and media. A smart first step for aspiring journalists is to earn a bachelor’s degree from a qualified journalism program.

Many programs, such as the Bachelor of Arts in Journalism program from the University of Massachusetts, are now available 100% online. That makes it easier for students, especially working professionals, to earn a degree while fitting classwork around their busy work and personal lives.

There are other steps they can take, as well. One of the core issues with journalism is fact-checking, something that some have lost in a rush to get news out quickly. Double and triple-checking facts is a way to ensure the public of the integrity and accuracy of news.

Another issue is to get news where people congregate, particularly on the web. Journalists today are trained in the use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn (for business journalism) to push stories out to where people will see them.

Given the current, sometimes circus-like atmosphere of national politics, more journalists also are heeding the public’s call for fact-based journalism that focuses on how government policies affect them rather than the latest dust-up between politicians.

Transparency is also key, which is a critical component in data journalism, an emerging area of the field in recent years.

The Emergence of Data Journalism

Data journalism is simply the use of information taken from large datasets that is used to supplement getting information from people. Data journalists look for trends that emerge through data, combing through large amounts of information in search of stories that shed light on some facet of people’s lives.

Because of its fact-based nature and transparency, data journalism continues to grow in popularity. The website FiveThirtyEight uses data to drive stories on politics, sports, science, economics and culture. And Politifact  often uses data to fact-check statements made by politicians.

Larger organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post have entire departments focused on data journalism. And even middle to small size newsrooms are beginning to emphasize data journalism, even if it’s just one or two reporters focusing in this area.

In the big picture, data journalism is just one facet in the ongoing battle among journalists against “fake news.” The only true way to combat it is to produce news that impacts people’s lives while, as the same time, is provable as not fake. Only then can people tell fact from fiction and put their trust back into journalism.