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Vince Bzdek: Real news requires truth and adhering to journalistic principles

By: Vince Bzdek
April 8, 2017 Updated: April 9, 2017 at 6:45 am
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Gazette editor Vince Bzdek March 14, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

Real news.

That's the antidote to fake news. It's as simple as that. As the internet and social media send more and more data your way, some of it fake, some of it biased, some of it confusingly half true and half false, we all have more need for identifiable sources dedicated to verifying information and putting it in context. And your hometown newspaper is still the best place to find those reliable sources, to find real news.

The Gazette has been practicing real news for a while - 144 years to be exact. We've created some standards and practices of accuracy, fairness and independence in that time that other media simply can't match. And Gazette news is created by real people who care deeply about Colorado Springs, who want to lead the discourse that is the linchpin to this city's success.

What are the standards that set real news - journalism - apart from other media?

I've always liked the nine basic principles of journalism listed in the book "The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect," by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel:

Journalism's first obligation is to tell the truth.

Journalism's first loyalty is to its citizens.

The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification.

Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.

Journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power.

Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism and comment.

Journalists must make the significant interesting and relevant.

Journalists should keep the news in proportion and make it comprehensive.

Journalists have an obligation to personal conscience.

We at the Gazette try to adhere religiously to these principles. In fact, any enterprise that purports to do real news should adhere to these principles, and you should hold us and them to these. The American Press Association has adopted them as their own, and they've put together a nice little preamble to the principles that states that the central purpose of journalism "is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society. This encompasses myriad roles helping define community, creating common language and common knowledge, identifying a community's goals, heroes and villains, and pushing people beyond complacency. This purpose also involves other requirements, such as being entertaining, serving as watchdog and offering voice to the voiceless."

A brief expansion on that first principle, about the truth. Journalism is first and foremost, a professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts, the APA says. "Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built: context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The truth, over time, emerges from this forum."

In a sea of fake news, verification is the most important of these principles right now. I first learned this principle from a crusty old cowboy editor here in town, Gary Vorhees, who used to tell me: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

The whole idea of objective reporting was never based on an assumption of bias-free journalists. That's impossible, right? Instead, the concept centered on the idea that there is a "consistent method of testing information - a transparent approach to evidence - precisely so that personal and cultural biases do not undermine the accuracy of their work. The method is objective; not the journalist," according to the APA.

This method involves a kind of triangulation - seeking out multiple authoritative sources, vetting them thoroughly, disclosing as much as possible about the sources, and allowing people who are accused or challenged in our stories to have the chance to comment before we publish the stories. That means always including opposing views.

This discipline of verification is what separates real news from fake news, and separates journalism from propaganda, fiction or entertainment. I'd suggest, in the age of fake news, that web surfers take this idea of triangulation a step further, and scan multiple story sources on their own. If reliable sources like the Wall Street Journal, The LA Times and the BBC all have the same basic facts on a story, then you are probably assured those facts are accurate. A reporter is only as good as her sources, and so is a reader.

There's an exciting new trend in journalism education emerging right now in response to fake news called media literacy.

According to a 2016 Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college, 82 percent of middle-schoolers couldn't tell the difference between an ad labeled "sponsored content" and a real news story on a website.

But we're fighting back now. Facebook on Friday released a set of tips to readers on the best methods for distinguishing real news from "false news." I liked tip No. 3 best: Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their "About" section to learn more.

Schools and colleges are seeing a teachable moment as well, adding media literacy classes and special courses not just in detecting fake news, but in how to better detect bias, missing points of view, misleading slants and economic influences, according to a recent Washington Post story on the trend.

Julie Smith, author of "Master the Media: How Teaching Media Literacy Can Save Our Plugged-In World" told a Post reporter that "learning to discern what is meaningful, balanced and accurate in this world filled with constant information flow is a 21st century survival skill for college students."

Media outlets are also joining in this campaign. You may have seen ads recently in your local newspaper, or national newspapers, from The News Media Alliance touting the Support Real News campaign, which calls on the public to fight fake news by subscribing to a local newspaper.

Why does subscribing help fight fake news? Freedom is not free, and neither is the truth. It costs money to hire professionals to verify and disseminate trustworthy information. To consume news without paying for it actually helps spur on organizations that aren't willing to pay for verifiers and fact checkers - for real journalists, in other words. Some of these fake news generators aren't people at all, they are internet bots.

In the weeks and months ahead, we at the Gazette are setting out to better explain what we do that sets us apart from so much of the media, social and otherwise, that's out there competing for your attention. How good journalism is different than tweeting and talking heads and fake news, and why good journalism is more important now than ever.

Because times change, information changes, soapboxes change, but good journalism doesn't.

Send me your questions about what we do, why we do it, and I'll do my best to explain our reasons and the rigor of our reporting. Let's talk.