Fake News: How did it happen, and what can we do? 

By Julia Schuller and Amelia Kibbe

Friday morning’s journalism ethics workshop began with familiar sight: a video of President Donald Trump lambasting the American media as “fake news.”

Butch Ward, senior faculty and former managing director at the Poynter Institute, led the two-and-a-half-hour workshop on ethical decision-making in the media and the concept of “fake news.”

Just this year, a Gallup poll indicated only 32 percent of Americans trust the media — an 8-point drop from last year.

How did trust erode?

Ward used Rolling Stone’s since-retracted “A Rape on Campus” story as an example of the shoddy journalism that has contributed to a decline in trust. It’s not a new phenomenon, he said.

Ward also blamed the absence of civil conversation in recent political media, especially during Trump’s campaign. New technology has also made polarization easier than ever.

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Photo by Rob DiRienzo

What can we do? 

Ward suggested a five-step approach to engaging in ethical journalism and combatting accusations of “fake news.”

1. Own your bias.

“No one is objective, but your process can be,” Ward said.

He suggested the media use transparency, humility and originality to recognize biases and move forward with evidence-based writing.

2. Check your values.

“Truth” and “balance” are crucial values for journalists, but, timing, readership and clicks are increasingly important factors in considering a story.

Dennis Lyons, editor of The Daily Item in Sunbury, sees a battle between speed and accuracy in reporting. His philosophy: “Are you sure?”

“[That’s] the question we always go with,” he said.

3. Refine your ethical decision-making. 

Ward suggested treating ethical decisions as an intellectual exercise instead of an  emotional one.

His presentation included a four-step process: (a) think about your principles, (b) ask a ton of questions, (c) look for alternatives, and (d) find solutions.

4. Go your own way. 

“Trust [your] own judgments enough to go [your] own way” Ward said.

To illustrate this approach, Ward recounted the stories surrounding the crowning of Miss America in 2013 and the 1976 kidnapping of 10-year-old Billy Arthes near Baltimore.

After the crowning of the first Native American Miss America, many publications ran articles discussing the racist response to this event.

Small news outlets face big pressure to write stories that draw more traffic, but Ward suggests nonconformist routes to popular stories.

5. Embrace Complexity.

Complexity does not always refer to long-form journalism packages, Ward said.

It’s communicating meaning to people’s lives through journalism and telling stories that help make their lives better.

Here’s an example he shared of a story that embraces complexity and the values of a community:

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