Journalistic Ethics and Alternative Facts: A Letter from the Editor
By Craig Marx, Editor
From time to time, it is necessary as editors to divulge to their readers the nature of the journalistic world and the many pitfalls, shortcomings, and general difficulties we face on a daily basis. Often times these negative impacts upon our profession come from lack of cooperation with those involved in a particular story or incident. In other circumstances, the dedication to maintaining professionalism by adhering to a code of journalistic ethics sometimes limits one from publishing more detailed facts out of respect to the sensitivity of the situation. Recently, however, some of the hindrances seem to stem from a top-down level of irresponsibility.
The most important aspect of journalism and all non-fiction writing is integrity. It is imperative to have integrity to the truth, to the reader, and the community as a whole, especially in a city the size of Antigo. For years, the only published voice in the community has been that of one local newspaper and now, through that same medium but also through the expanding channels of social media and instantaneous video and photography, people have options as to what they would like to read and view. As an editor it is my responsibility to condone everything that is published both in print and online, regardless of the name in the byline.
With that responsibility also comes the need to explain some concerns. When government officials and advisers begin to use terms such as “alternative facts” in relation to published material and press coverage, those said journalists and media consultants have already broken that code of ethics that holds true to a small-town paper as much as it does to those speaking on behalf of the leader of a sovereign nation. Facts need to be reported as such, and it is the responsibility of those who have a readership following to do so.
The “alternative facts” conundrum merely outlines some of the pressing problems in modern media. Some younger readers would rather have small, quickly-posted stories without full-fledged and supporting details all because of the societal need for instant gratification. With that often comes skeptical reporting practices and “click-bait” style headlines for which the modern generation has become self-subscribed to. Scroll through Facebook and take note of just how many headlines are labeled as “…and then the unthinkable happened…” (or something along those lines), prompting the reader to click on an article that is probably one paragraph long and conveys no real message outside its provocative headline.
While “alternative facts” is a relatively new means to describe dodgy reporting and almost seems as if a means to pass it off, it has existed since the dawn of journalism. Responsible editors should do everything in their power to not only avoid sensationalism and questionable headline appeal but also to bring to light those mediums that actually do. There has been quite some talk about Facebook finding a means to put an end to “fake news,” but nothing seems to have come to light. In fact, who will be the deciding council to determine what news is real or not? The fact that deciphering between the truth and what some people may want to read/hear is actually a debate in the first place is where we have gone wrong as a communicative society. It should also be of note that this irresponsibility stems from both ends of the political spectrum. No news outlet is “holier-than-thou” in its own right, and far too often this sensationalism coupled with erroneous journalism is brought forth from those in charge of their writers.
As mentioned above, as editors we only have our own resources and input from the community to be able to dictate necessary information to the public. Providing that information in the most factual manner should be the only focus and job responsibility of a professional publisher.