Journalists counter propaganda with verification

By: Michael Lancaster

Commentary for The Charter


Propaganda is not new, and it’s definitely not news. Much of the fake news that has increasingly flooded the internet is really propaganda. When confused with real news, propaganda creates confusion, mistrust, and, ultimately, threatens our democracy. For good decision-making, we need reliable information. For reliable information, we need journalists who gather, verify, and report facts.


What should information be if not reliable? Not factual?


Journalists don’t own the facts, but facts are the currency of journalism. Facts give journalism its value. Facts aren’t facts until they’re verified. Readers can be sure the verified news stories they read are true and accurate–or they’ll be corrected.


News stories share elements with other literary forms, but facts demand some differences. Unlike in fictional stories, the characters in news stories are real people; they may be your family, your friends, your neighbors. The settings are real places and times; these are current events that may affect your school, your neighborhood, your city, your air, your water. Plots are not based on actual events; they are actual events. Themes revolve around interesting, useful, and relevant topics. Themes matter because living souls are affected. News stories reflect real-life actions that often cause real-life reactions.


To be sure, there’s a place in journalism for opinion, satire, news analysis, and entertainment. It just needs to be clearly differentiated. It can’t be disguised as news. The responsibility to differentiate historically rested with the press, with the journalists. Increasingly, it may be up to readers to challenge themselves to different points of view. It may also be up to readers to determine verified information from misinformation or speculation.


Though we’ve long celebrated our country’s First Amendment free speech rights, true freedom of the press was limited to those who had access to a press. This limitation in the news realm allowed some control and consistency of journalistic principles. Layers of editorial review and fact-checking would help ensure only fair and truthful news stories went to print. Accountability was further ensured by reader responses such as letters to the editor and other commentary. Any misinformation that got through was quickly corrected.


In this blogging, Facebook, and tweet era, anyone can report “news”. This is a good thing in many respects. We are no longer limited by the few owners of expensive presses. Anyone with internet access can post information and spread it virally. Interesting, useful, and relevant information may come from nearly anywhere. Corruption, abuse of power, and other law breaking have been accurately and fairly documented and reported by ordinary citizens, bringing awareness to issues and, sometimes, accountability.


You don’t have to be a “journalist” to report news. It doesn’t require formal training to be a journalist, and journalists don’t have to be professional. There is no oversight committee or governing trade association. Journalists don’t require licenses, certificates, or degrees. They do need some curiosity, some writing skill, perhaps some purpose, and, especially, adherence to the truth. Determining truth–or the closest thing to it–requires verification. Verification reigns supreme.


Dennis Swibold, a journalism professor at the The University of Montana’s School of Journalism, still believes journalists benefit from training and that that training leads to more reliable information. When reached for comment about the difference between fake news and real news, Swibold responded by email.


The challenge for everyone is verification. How do you know something is true? That’s a difficult task for trained journalists, much less ordinary folks untrained to ask hard questions, search for documentation and dig, dig, dig,” Swibold wrote.


“Many people simply don’t care. Their suspicion of all sorts of media, strangely, means they’ll believe only what supports their beliefs or prejudices. We’re all like that, to some extent. But that’s a dangerous way to be. That’s why we need good journalists more than ever. Much of what passed for news in any era was BS, but we believed it because we had few sources of verification. Now we have lots of ways to verify things, but few people who actually know how to do it.”


Questionable information requires cross-checking with other reliable sources, sometimes double- or triple-checking. If it isn’t corroborated, it doesn’t go to print. Any speculative claims go unmade. Journalists are trained to do this, and, therefore, the news they produce is more factual, more objective, more reliable. Isn’t that the point of information? Of news?


The verification process starts with first considering all the angles. As long professed, there are always (at least) two sides to every story. What are they? Then verification requires identifying and contacting honest sources of reliable information. Who can tell those sides of the story? Who can accurately represent those perspectives? Verification moves on through editor review, re-checking, and finally reader response. These are tried, true, and transparent tenets that provide some basis for readers’ trust.


With propaganda that is disguised as news, readers can be misled. That adds to the distrust of all news media. Sometimes it can happen by accident by even the best trained journalists. Sometimes–increasingly, it seems–it is intentional. “News” is irresponsibly gathered and reported. Or, it’s selectively presented, misconstrued or totally fabricated.


“People can now just find facts to support whatever they feel like should be right. Feelings are now more important than verifiable information,” Lizzy Acker, a reporter for the Oregonian, replied in an email to questions for this commentary.


“We’ve gotten to a point where information is so individualized, people only trust news that reinforces their worldview. It’s both terrifying and demoralizing. What I am trying to do is just keep working on writing true things, even when they make me feel uncomfortable.”


I’ve long held that no information is better than misinformation. That is a personal tenet as well as a journalistic tenet. Personally, I’d rather accept that I don’t know something than to believe in something that just isn’t true. Consumers of news deserve to know that what they are experiencing is true and real. The fake news epidemic threatens the integrity of journalism and its ability to inform and empower each of us and, ultimately, our democratic principles.


Definition of Propaganda, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary

  • the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
  • ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also :  a public action having such an effect


Definition of Journalism, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary

  • writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation


Sources Cited, accessed Dec. 20, 2016.


Personal email interview, Dennis Swibold, Professor and Director of Faculty Affairs at the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, Dec. 20, 2016


Personal email interview, Lizzy Acker, Trending Reporter at The Oregonian and Oregonlive, Dec. 20, 2016, accessed Dec. 20, 2016, accessed Dec. 20, 2016