By David Gordon, associate editor
In an age when anyone can post information online and social media can spread misinformation instantaneously, news consumers need to use care in selecting the sources they use to inform themselves, according to a quartet of journalists who took part in a panel discussion Tuesday evening on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus.
The panelists included Rusty Cunningham, executive editor at the La Crosse Tribune; Dan Schillinger, news director at WQOW-TV; and Andrew Fefer, WEAU-TV’s news director. Amanda Tyler, WEAU weekend anchor and multimedia reporter, was the moderator.
The discussion, sponsored by the UW-EC chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, ranged well beyond its announced focus on “fake news.” Some 25 people were in the audience, about two-thirds of them students and the rest from the general community.
The panelists agreed that traditional journalism standards such as accuracy and practices like using multiple sources are more important than ever now, in part because so much information is posted by people who never learned those practices, or choose to ignore them.
Journalists, Schillinger said, are now competing not only with other journalists “but also with the public which doesn’t operate by any rules.” Cunningham added that “we’d be very wise to differentiate ourselves as sources of information.”
Fefer said that the competitive nature of the 24-hour news cycle hasn’t diminished the value of accuracy and other basic journalistic principles. WEAU, he said, WEAU has a “viewership that wants the information now – or five minutes ago – and we have to get it there” – but accurately.
Cunningham noted that while journalists still compete to be first with a story, that should not always be the goal.
“Nothing has changed the principle of getting it right,” he said, a point echoed by Schillinger’s comment that “I’d rather be last and right than first and wrong.”
Overall, the panelists agreed that competition is good because, among other things, it keeps the competing news media on their toes.
Select Sources Carefully
When the discussion turned to how members of the public can protect themselves against false reports – intended or not – the panelists said it came down to the care with which people select their sources for news.
Fefer said that audience members must “consider the source. Where are you getting your information from?”
Schillinger said that “if no one else has the story, it’s a warning” and added that “if you only see it in one place, it’s probably false.”
Tyler suggested “triangulation – finding sources with very different perspectives and looking for an area where those perspectives intersect. Journalists could also use that technique as “a great way of preventing themselves from falling into the trap of ‘fake news,’” she said.
Schillinger decried the tendency of many people to pay attention only to media outlets which provide information and opinion that reinforces what they already believe. Such “echo chambers” aren’t new, he said, drawing a parallel to the early 20th century when many cities had two newspapers, each one a clear advocate for either the Republicans or the Democrats.
That’s no longer the case, because most of those communities are now one-newspaper towns. But the partisan approach has been taken over to a considerable degree by talk radio, he said.
“The mainstream media are at least making an effort to be fair,” he said, but the people providing opinion and “news” in the “echo chambers” don’t care about fairness.
Cunningham agreed that efforts to mislead the public with so-called “fake news” aren’t a new phenomenon. But technology now allows that material to be disseminated faster and more easily than ever before, he noted.
“We’ve had liars and fakers for a long time,” he said. “It’s just easier for them now,” a problem compounded by staff reductions at most media outlets that make fact-checking more difficult.
Challenge Outright Lies
“We need to point out when people are being frauds, in any way we can,” he said, and challenge outright lies.
One effective way to reduce the amount of fake news, Schillinger suggested, would be “a little more public shaming” of its practitioners, to the point where they become too embarrassed to continue.
Journalists have a responsibility to act as watchdogs – but not as either attack dogs or lap dogs – and make public officials tell the truth, Cunningham said. To do that, he added, they “need to be tougher and more persistent in asking questions.
“It’s our responsibility to make sure we’re asking that next question of that other source,” he said. “It’s our credibility that’s on the line.”
Panelists also said that audience members have a responsibility to become “educated” or “discerning” news consumers.
“That’s really the key to it,” Schillinger said. “I think people have gotten too lazy about consuming news.”
Tyler said that it’s “Important for the public to understand what’s going through our minds when we make the decisions we make.”
Audience members also have a responsibility to become better informed citizens, Cunningham suggested.
“We’ve got people spending more time researching what restaurant they’re going to tonight than they do investigating the background of a political candidate,” he said.
The panelists agreed there was no way to prevent “fake news” from being published, broadcast or posted, because the First Amendment, as Schillinger said, “protects lies as well as truth,” unfortunate as that may seem.
Cunningham said that the First Amendment, though it contains only 45 words, is “sweeping and straight forward and doesn’t differentiate on the basis of race, color,” religion, political preference or any of the other characteristics that often divide the public.