The News Media Alliance, based in Virginia, today launches its "Support Real News" campaign, designed to increase support for journalism at a time when the value of fact-based reporting is under attack on a variety of fronts.
Many readers are aware of the discovery by Macedonian teenagers that fake news — fictional, imaginary stories — can become a comfortable revenue stream in the modern world of social media and automated advertising.
But this discovery was still newborn when the term "fake news" was co-opted, by the president of the United States, among others, to include any reports with which these people did not agree. The president today routinely accuses leading journalistic organizations of publishing "fake news" when he doesn't like their stories.
This is a dangerous development that threatens to move us into the company of countries where the government attempts to delegitimize all reporting it does not explicitly sanction. The ideological balkanization of our news media has compounded the problem. Many liberals now dismiss reporting from Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Many conservatives dismiss reporting from MSNBC and the New York Times.
This phenomenon, traditionally known as confirmation bias and more recently as "motivated reasoning," allows us to remain in our ideological silos, accepting as "true" only that information that supports our pre-existing beliefs. Any information that challenges our beliefs automatically becomes illegitimate.
In the face of these threats to a shared knowledge base that allows our society to debate issues on common grounds, we go back to basics. In higher education, the study of knowledge is called epistemology. It is the attempt to establish rules that distinguish justified belief from opinion.
Justified beliefs are built on facts. What makes something a fact? Evidence.
The reporters in our newsroom, and in newsrooms all over our country, do their best every day to gather facts, test them against multiple sources, and present them to readers, listeners and viewers. It is an imperfect process, to be sure. For one thing, people in power, in both the public and private sectors, frequently don't want us to know stuff, so our information is often incomplete. For another, we are human, and therefore make mistakes.
Still, this imperfect system is the best that free societies have come up with to produce a common factual foundation upon which to make decisions. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote:
"[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."
Facing the challenges of young entrepreneurs, who produce fake news as a means to make money; political ideologues, who produce biased news to further their agendas, and the internet, which has disrupted the business model of traditional news media and dramatically reduced the number of reporters on the streets of America, we now confront the greatest risk to fact-based decision-making in recent times.
The response of the "Support Real News" campaign is to encourage citizens to support local journalism by subscribing to their local newspapers, and to support investigative journalism by contributing to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which is partnering with the News Media Alliance in this campaign.
Even with a shared foundation of facts, members of our society and of our local communities will continue to disagree with one another strenuously on many matters. But if you believe with us that a shared foundation of facts is critical to civil society and civil debate, we urge you to Support Real News.
—Dave Krieger, for the editorial board. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @DaveKrieger