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Arguing about facts is different than saying facts don’t matter

By Dan Catchpole

Pres. Donald Trump stepped up his attacks on the country’s professional news media Wednesday, with thinly veiled threats on Twitter to pull broadcast licenses due to critical news reports.

The attack fell flat in the face of reality. The First Amendment protects broadcasters from politically-motivated censorship by the federal government. Never one for details, Trump reiterated his empty threat Wednesday evening, saying on Twitter: “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!”

There is no shortage of fake news in modern America. It sprouts like weeds in the digital realms where we spend so much of our time. But the professional news organizations in Trump’s gilded crosshairs are not the problem.

Like every other human endeavor, journalism is imperfect. It does some things better than others. There are plenty of worthwhile discussions to be had about how to improve the news media. But fabricating stories en masse is not one of them.

The people accusing professional news media as being “fake news” are not interested in improving journalism. Their goal appears to be destructive, rather than constructive. Their barbs come from the gut. They are not arguing over the facts. They are screaming that facts don’t matter.

Professional journalists stake their reputations on reporting verifiable truth. As a newspaper reporter, I have written countless inches of copy. Whether I was reporting on Russia’s military occupation of Georgia, Boeing’s latest commercial jetliner development program or a school district in Yakima Valley, every sentence I wrote was supported by facts I had uncovered and verified in my reporting.

Professional newsrooms are driven by ethical guidelines and best practices. For all professional journalists, ethics trump stories. Top among journalism ethics are verification and accuracy. As the saying goes, if your mother says she loves you, check it out. These are not recommendations. We go to great lengths to avoid situations that can compromise our ability to follow them. When I worked at the Everett Herald, my editor asked me to cover a story about Sound Transit expanding light rail from Seattle to Everett. I said that ethically I couldn’t. The expansion was directly and significantly driving up my home value. I had a direct stake in light rail’s future. I did not want to run the risk of that subconsciously influencing my reporting.

By professional, I mean any news organization that stakes its success on the quality and accuracy of its journalism. Its reputation is based on reporting the truth, rather than pushing a political agenda regardless of facts. That includes your local newspaper, big wire services such as the Associated Press, and other news outlets typically labeled as “mainstream news media,” a seemingly innocuous label that is actually used to subtly appeal to many Americans’ sense of alienation.  Professional news media also includes partisan outlets, such as the National Review, Reason and Mother Jones, and alternative outlets, such as The Stranger. These news organizations have political positions, but their reporting is still based in verifiable facts.

There are plenty of hack media outlets where stories adhere to ideological standards, not ethical standards. In lieu of verifiable facts, they often rely on implication and innuendo. They have little to no regard for conflicts that can compromise their accuracy. For example, Infowars peddles conspiracy theories while cross-promoting its retail products.

Project Veritas is another hack outlet masquerading as journalism. Its undercover operatives get targets to carelessly talk while being secretly recorded. Snippets of the conversations are dropped into Project Veritas’ narrative without context. For ethical reasons, these methods simply are not used by professional reporters.

This week, Project Veritas released a hit piece in which a New York Times junior editor makes several statements that, taken at face value, grossly violate standard newsroom ethics. The newspaper said as much on Tuesday and that it is looking into the matter. That fact that the Times is taking seriously apparent ethical violations is evidence of its reliability, not of its duplicity.

Given Project Veritas’ techniques, we don’t know in what the circumstances the editor, Nick Dudich, made his comments. When I was covering Boeing, al-Jazeera’s American outlet released a piece about drug use at the aerospace giant’s South Carolina plant. Much of the report relied on footage secretly recorded by a Boeing employee while discussing drug use with coworkers inside the plant. That is not verifiable. I don’t know who he spoke to or what was said off camera. As a journalist, the footage would prompt me to start looking into the issue. But I would never publish the footage.

Some of Dudich’s statements are shocking. Much of what he said appears to be bluster more than reality. And some is benign. Yet, Project Veritas uses production techniques to present all the material in the most sinister light. They hit piece takes one New York Times employee’s statements as evidence for how the entire newspaper runs.

So, how to tell fake news from real news? Look at who is doing the reporting. Does the outlet have ethical guidelines driving their newsroom? Does it run corrections and clarifications that are clearly displayed?

Journalism is not perfect. But it is verifiable.

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