If you have any interest in politics and the media, I encourage you to attend an upcoming panel discussion and community conversation about real vs. fake news and how to tell the difference.
The panel will consist of Don Carrigan, Midcoast bureau reporter for WCSH 6; Greg Kesich, editorial page editor for the Portland Press Herald; Mal Leary, political correspondent for Maine Public; and myself, the editor of the newspaper you’re reading.
The Lincoln County Democratic Committee is the sponsor of the event, which will take place at Mobius Inc. headquarters, 319 Main St., Damariscotta, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 24.
I could hear some of our conservative readers groan when they read who the organizer was. Sounds like an opportunity for liberal journalists to get together with liberal voters so they can tell each other how wonderful they are, right?
Wrong – at least from my perspective. I hope to engage in a serious conversation about our role as journalists in the loss of trust in our industry.
Just 32 percent of Americans (and just 14 percent of Republicans) trust the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly, according to a Gallup poll in September 2016. Those are the lowest numbers in Gallup history.
How did we sink so low as an industry? What can we do to regain the public’s confidence?
Some in the media like to blame the public’s loss of trust on attacks from the president and the ability for anyone to post anything online and call it “news.”
Instead of blaming the president’s attacks, we need to ask ourselves why those attacks have been so effective. Why are so many Americans ready to side with a president who calls the media the enemy of the people?
Instead of blaming “fake news” websites, we need to ask ourselves why the public feels the need to reject the news sources they have read their entire lives in favor of complete unknowns!
We, the media, need to take responsibility for our own dismal poll numbers.
The media plays a crucial role in our democracy, but right now it is crippled because two-thirds of Americans find the media so untrustworthy, they simply believe what they want to believe. In their eyes, an internet meme has the same credibility (or more) as an article in The New York Times or a segment on “NBC Nightly News.”
I hope Democrats and Republicans and independents will all attend this community conversation. A conversation between people of like mind will accomplish little, in my opinion. We need to hear from each other and make an honest effort to understand each other, on this issue and many others. It’s the only way I see to begin to find the middle again in our discourse about national politics.
Chris Johnson, who chairs the Lincoln County Democratic Committee, asked me to be on the panel (with three much more experienced and accomplished journalists) to talk about the issue from the perspective of The Lincoln County News.
How do we check facts? How do we ensure what we publish is the truth?
I won’t make you go to the forum to learn these great secrets of The Lincoln County News:
1. We rarely, if ever, use anonymous sources. I will not say we would never use an anonymous source, but I cannot recall a single instance of doing so in my seven years here, nor can I think of any ongoing situation in which I would approve the use of an anonymous source.
2. We never publish rumors without verification. Journalists sometimes ask the question “Is it better to be first or better to be right?” While we prefer to be first and right, we would rather be right than first. That is, we would rather our readers occasionally perceive us as slow to report a piece of breaking news than hastily report a rumor without appropriate verification and later have to retract it.
3. We always try to present both sides of an issue. If Politician 1 introduces a bill to celebrate Halloween four times a year in order to boost candy sales and create jobs in the candy industry, we will report it, but will also include a quote from Politician 2, who says the economic boost to candy manufacturers will come at the cost of the dental health of our children. If Politician 2 also says Politician 1 only supports Halloween four times a year because he owns the local candy store and stands to profit from the passage of his bill, we would go back to Politician 1 for a response. And so on.
4. We keep opinion on the opinion page. The editorial in this space each week expresses an opinion, and when we do our job right, it’s as much of our opinion as you will find in the newspaper. We clearly label it and sequester it from news items.
5. We work hard to ensure our reporting is fair and objective. We search for signs of bias in each article and exterminate it where we find it.
This does not mean our reporters do not have biases. Everyone has biases. A good reporter knows his or her biases and leaves them out of his or her work.
It’s important to note that bias can be evident, not just in a statement of opinion within an article, but in the articles we choose to write, the placement of those articles in the newspaper, and the angle we take on a particular article.
We take our commitment to objectivity seriously. If you feel one of our news items falls short of this standard, I welcome your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s about it. Nothing more than common sense, really.
While this offers a sneak peak at my (not very interesting) answers to one question, the panel will tackle several questions about what constitutes fake news, how we deal with accusations of “fake news,” and how news consumers can tell the difference between what’s fake and what’s real.
I urge anyone who has read this far to show up, especially if you’re one of those two-thirds of Americans who lack confidence in the media. Come meet a few journalists and find out if we’re really as detestable as you suspect. It’s your turn to ask the tough questions. I look forward to a challenging and illuminating conversation.