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The Daily Anthenaeum: Fake news — the poison that threatens our democracy

From The Daily Anthenaeum:

By Maryanne Reed

Honorary Correspondent

Dean of the Reed College of Media

There’s an antidote to fake news.  It’s called “journalism.”

Journalism is the act of gathering information about current events and relevant issues and disseminating it to an audience.  Its purpose is to help people make educated decisions about their lives, communities and government.  Journalists are trained to seek the truth and to hold powerful individuals and institutions accountable.

I was cheered by a recent DA editorial criticizing the phenomenon of fake news.  I agree that the rise of fake news is a pernicious trend. It creates a fog of confusion that makes it difficult for the public to ascertain fact from fiction.  It also erodes the public’s confidence in information of any kind, including that provided by journalists and media organizations.

That distrust makes the American public vulnerable to manipulation by politicians, governments and other groups who have an agenda to disrupt our democracy.

Based on my experience and observations, I have faith in the integrity and positive intent of most journalists, particularly those who are trained professionals working for established media organizations that have a proven track record over time. They are accountable to their readers and viewers, and their work is verifiable.

As practiced by individuals and not algorithms, journalism is far from perfect. Journalists can be sensational in their pursuit of readers and ratings. Their work can be influenced by their own political biases. But I do not believe — nor have I seen any compelling evidence to suggest — that journalists are purposely trying to mislead the public by presenting information that is blatantly false.

Elected officials — and those they appoint to leadership positions — should not contribute to the fog of confusion by suggesting that factual reporting is “fake news.”  This kind of rhetoric may score political points, but it threatens to undermine the important work done by actual journalists in their watchdog role.

Historically, when autocratic regimes take power, one of their first actions is to eliminate freedom of the press. Conversely, when countries emerge from dictatorships, their people tend to embrace, empower and even revere independent journalism.

Journalism is, and always has been, an essential component of a democratic society, in which the public is free to seek information that’s truthful and to challenge its government when it is not.

Fake news is a real threat, perpetuated by those with malicious intentions, who are exploiting the relative freedom and anonymity of the social web.  And while it may be difficult to spot a fake news story that is intentionally designed to mislead, it’s not impossible.

The best way to combat fake news is to be a thoughtful consumer of what you read, watch and share.

You need to expose yourself to a variety of news sources, including those presenting points of view different than your own. You need to seek journalism produced by professional journalists who actually cover the news, not just opine about it.  And you need to use your critical thinking skills to question information that seems too outrageous to be true.

But if you want to fight fake news on the front lines, you might want to consider a career in journalism.  At its best, it is a noble profession aimed at uncovering the truth and holding the powerful accountable for their actions and words.  As a journalist, you may not always be popular, but you’ll have a front row seat to history and be paid to give people real facts, not “alternative” ones.

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