Journalism has been practiced in mostly the same way for decades—sources are consulted, facts are collected, and the ideal result is a story of events based mostly in truth, with the gray areas filled by earnest speculation or research. Like many institutions, however, journalism is far from static, and has seen its fair share of tumult over the years.
The year 2016 could well mark the crest of the latest wave of change, with the rise of “fake news” websites and disinformation at an all-time high, and trust in major national news sources at an all-time low. This abrupt shift has left journalists scrambling, watching their craft shift from fact-based reporting into defense mode over how they got those facts and arrived to their conclusions.
BTRtoday sat down with Lynn Walsh, investigative executive producer at NBC 7 San Diego and president of the Society of Professional Journalists, to discuss these immense changes, the role of journalism in the United States, and its future. For the full conversation, tune in to the Daily Beat.
BTRtoday (BTR): To start, what is the purpose and objective of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ)?
Lynn Walsh (LW): SPJ is one of the oldest journalism organizations in the country, and our code of ethics is one of the most widely and primarily used ethics codes in journalism, whether it’s journalism classes or adapted by news organizations. So that’s our number one thing.
I would say number two is protecting the First Amendment, specifically freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and also citing for government transparency. Those documents that we as members of the public have a right to have access to, SPJ kind of puts our name, resources, and even our money behind those fights so that members of the public can get the information that belongs to them.
BTR: In your opinion, what is the role of journalism in the United States?
LW: We are sort of that last stand when it comes to government doing whatever they want. I guess I look at it like this: my mother worked full time, she cared about everything that we did and wanted us to get a good education, but if the school sent home a flier and told her something, she believed it. And why wouldn’t she? They’re an authority. But she didn’t have the time to maybe question or put in a document or even cite for access to other information that wasn’t provided to her. Sometimes in this country, unfortunately, it’s not that easy to get the information that the public is entitled to. To me, that’s the role a journalist fills. That’s our job: to put up that fight. We do that for the public. We’re not doing that for ourselves.
BTR: There has been a massive loss of trust between major national journalistic outlets and the American public. What are some of the reasons for that erosion of trust?
LW: It definitely exists, and I think this election cycle it’s become even more apparent. As someone who cares a lot about journalism and being a journalist, it can be very upsetting and disheartening. I think there have been examples that people point to and say ‘well, we can’t trust them because of this or because of that.’ In general, though, I think it’s more of just a misunderstanding of what’s journalism and what’s entertainment, and also what’s not even true but is being shared online.
I really think what we’ve seen is a breakdown, and journalists and news organizations are just as much to blame as much as this lack of understanding and lack of information about what news is. News organizations don’t clearly state if they’re sharing something on Facebook or Twitter something that is from their opinion page. That’s dangerous, because someone reads it and just assumes that it’s fact because it comes from the Washington Post or the New York Times, when it fact it was just an opinion piece. That’s where the news organization responsibility is, but I also think you see websites who have put together reports that are not fact-based and sometimes complete lies that have gained such traction online that people just assume and think that it’s true.
BTR: Do you think it’s possible to regain that trust at this point?
LW: I have to say I hope so, because if not, we are looking at a very dangerous America where people only believe what they agree with whether it’s fact or not. There are facts, there are things that are true, there are things that aren’t true. Journalists need to take this upon themselves, and I also think the public needs to really sit back and think: do we want to be able to hold our government accountable? Or do we want to just be handed press releases and believe that it’s true because we like the candidate, or see a tweet and think ‘oh, of course it’s true, because I like him or her.’ That to me is very dangerous, and I really hope that people understand that we can’t just do that. We need outsiders like journalists to question the powerful and hold people accountable. Just because they do that it doesn’t mean they don’t like the candidate or what they’re saying, they’re doing it because it’s their job and we have that right in this country.
BTR: The rise of fake news has been a huge story throughout the election and in its aftermath. As a journalist what’s your take on it, and what do you see as the best ways to fight against it.
LW: It’s really disappointing, and as a journalist I’ve really tried to take it upon myself to bring awareness to an article that may not be truthful, that has misinformation, and inform the individual sharing it about that. It’s disheartening when I’m talking to family members and they’re telling me something and I’m just like, ‘that’s not true, that was made up, that was on a website with no basis in fact and completely shown to be false.’
It’s frustrating, and it makes you wonder what you do then. So that’s what I’ve been focusing on is sending links, and I think original documents are key right now with journalism—sharing that email that you sent to the congressman or the governor and sharing the response, just being very transparent about the reporting process so people can see for themselves that this is what happened. If you don’t want to read my article that’s fine, but here’s the email that says exactly what my article is saying.
BTR: There are certain people that, no matter what a given journalist says or how transparent they are about reporting, will never alter the way they think about a given story or institution. Is it possible to reach people whose mind has been completely made up?
LW: I think there are always going to be some individuals who have made their mind up about subject A and that’s it, there’s no convincing them otherwise. I’m hoping the number of those individuals and those instances is smaller than I think they might be. But I think the best thing to do is have a dialogue with that individual if you can. And I think we have to be more open to that in our society and not yelling, but trying to understand where that individual is coming from. It’s as simple as asking that individual ‘okay, why do you think that? Where did you here that?’ It’s not dialogue that is very two-sided. I think there are almost always more than two sides to every story and issue.
BTR: How can journalism education be altered in a post-truth world?
LW: What we need to do is begin having these conversations with students when they are in elementary school. This is where that education needs to start, on what the First Amendment is and what it means. These are main tenets that our country exists and was founded upon. Also, offer tips and tools for people to know what questions to ask when looking at a news article. Does the website look like it’s CNN but have a ‘.co’ or a ‘.io’ next to it? Well, that’s not CNN’s website. So it’s those kind of educational things that we have to start doing from a very young age.
As far as specific to journalism, I think really focusing on old-fashioned reporting and not worrying so much about what’s trending or how many clicks something’s going to get. Really what I’ve seen is that our stories do really well online. People do want that real news, we just have to focus more on that, and I think if the focus is more on reporting and being journalists and doing good journalism, then I think we’ll be better off.