We’ve all heard it before; from the mouths of our friends, from fact checkers, and, of course, from the president of the United States’ Twitter account. These days, one can’t escape claims of hoaxes, fiction and falsehoods — but in trying to stomp out the blaze of fake news, are we in the press succeeding only in further setting ourselves alight?
The media, you may have noticed, has an integrity problem. Following the political maelstrom that was the 2016 presidential election, President Trump and many others, often from both sides of the aisle, have decried the mainstream media as a pack of wolves out for blood. These “so called ‘journalists,’” we are told, are really biased elites enlisted in a grand conspiracy to befuddle and beguile the American people.
These absurd claims are, of course, hyperbolic and told for political expediency. It doesn’t change the fact that millions of Americans believe them. Nor does it change the fact the president regularly capitalizes on mistakes in the media to discredit any and all unfavorable reporting on him.
For all of us — both media practitioners and consumers — our failure to do better should shame us. There has been a slew of fantastic, earth-shaking reporting in the past year. But more often than not, it seems a steady downfall of truth is closely followed by an avalanche of anonymously-sourced speculation.
When the media, the traditional filter through which information passes before reaching the masses, can no longer legitimately decipher a genuinely newsworthy story or scandal from just another soundbite or hoax, it de-legitimizes the entire field of journalism. Furthermore, it ties directly into the president and his administration’s disinformation agenda.
A journalist’s foremost responsibility is to decipher the signal from the noise and deliver the unabated truth. Jumping the gun on every little scandal, however, is not holding power accountable — it’s enabling that same power to get away with real crimes later.
This isn’t a problem that ends at the border, either. Truly autocratic, anti-press regimes throughout the world, such as China, can point to what Trump is doing when they crack down on domestic dissidents. Similarly, strongmen like President Erdogan of Turkey will use such trends as “fake news” to justify the incarceration of journalists.
It’s hard not to cut journalists some slack. When the leader of the Western world calls the free and independent press the “enemy of the American people,” it is not unfair to say he is all but begging the media to take an adversarial stance against him. This is a natural and legitimate response to such claims, but in our rush to deliver the truth, journalists would be wise to take a lesson from our colleagues in the medical field: “first, do no harm.”
While it is vitally important that our nation’s executive be held accountable, and that his patently false claims be routinely exposed, we risk falling into the role of the boy who cried wolf: raising such sound and fury over nothing that, in the end, no one believes you when the wolf actually shows up.
Our media ecosystem is sick, and its symptoms are rapidly spilling over into the rest of the world. A free, fair and balanced press takes a public commitment to facts and a community dedicated to swallowing them — even, and especially, when they prove us wrong. If we intend to heal, our first step should be asking ourselves “how can I do better?”