Boy, this has not been a good month for reporting.
First came the Dec. 1 ABC News report that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was going to testify that President Trump directed him to make contact with Russian officials while Trump was still a candidate. This information was cited to an anonymous source.
This was untrue — it was after the election that Trump asked Flynn to contact Russia.
Then there was the Dec. 5 Reuters and Bloomberg report that Special Counsel Robert Mueller subpoenaed Deutche Bank in Germany to provide information about accounts held by Trump and his family at the bank, again citing an anonymous source.
This was also false — the subpoena asked for documents for people affiliated with Trump, not the president himself.
Finally comes the Dec. 8 CNN report, again coming from an anonymous source, that the Trump campaign received a Sept. 4, 2016 email that let the team download hacked WikiLeaks documents before those documents were made public.
That report was incorrect as well — the campaign received the email Sept. 14, 2016, a day after WikiLeaks publicly tweeted out the same information received by the Trump campaign team.
And while corrections and clarifications were issued (and ABC’s Brian Ross being suspended without pay and is no longer reporting on Trump), these reparations will only heal so much of the obvious harm that was caused from other news organizations picking up the story and spreading false information.
These reports came at a time when distrust of the “mainstream media” seems at an all-time high, especially with Trump and his supporters continuing to capitalize on #FakeNews.
But this is not fake news, as some would argue — this is bad journalism, and comparing these reports to Pizzagate or stories like the Texas gunman being a member of antifa, or any number of the fake news reports the AP tracks (Google “AP not real news”), is ridiculous.
One wrong fact does not fake news make.
At the very least, it shows the weaknesses behind how the news world operates, like valuing the scoop over confirmed facts, and the pressure news organizations are under to publish related reports without independent verification.
And at the most, it shows that some journalists are biased against Trump and are too trigger-happy to completely fact check anything that seems damning to the president or other Republicans, wrote Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review.
In all likelihood, both sentiments are correct, and the solution to both would be a stronger and more thorough editorial process to vet stories for accuracy and bias before they’re aired or published.
Of course, “a more thorough editorial process,” probably means little to the average news consumer. How exactly are stories written and vetted inside the newsroom?
The Washington Post published an excellent opinion piece titled, “How do you use an anonymous source? The mysteries of journalism everyone should know,” which goes over some of the behind-the-scenes of news reporting that is often overlooked or taken for granted.
For example, an anonymous source is almost certainly not anonymous to the newsroom, and there is almost never one, but two, or three, or even more.
“A senior editor has to approve (an anonymous source), and know who the source is,” media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote. “A single unnamed source is rarely enough to go ahead with a story — there must be two sources with the same firsthand knowledge. And one of a handful of top editors must sign off on its use before publication.… Anonymity is granted to known sources under tightly controlled circumstances because they can’t speak on the record with their names attached for a variety of reasons. News organizations try to limit their use, embarking on crackdowns and then sometimes backsliding.”
Many news readers also don’t seem to understand the difference between news reporters and editorial writers, Sullivan continues. This seemed clear in the recent Project Vertitas sting against the Post, in which a video seemingly showed how biased Post editorials are.
The video showed the Post’s national security writer Dan Lamothe describing how critical of President Trump he finds The Post’s staff-written editorials to be.
“That’s hardly a secret — the editorials, which represent the consensus of the paper’s editorial board, are published, after all,” Sullivan wrote. “But Project Veritas was taking advantage of the fact that news consumers don’t make a distinction between news reporters and editorial writers. Inside The Post’s building, though, that split is clear. News reporters and news-side editors strive for impartiality — they want to keep their opinions out of their work. By contrast, editorial writers and columnists are not only allowed to have an opinion, it’s in their job description.”
The paper’s editorial board currently consists of nine editors and various topical specialists, and, “News reporters and editors never contribute to editorial board discussions, and editorial board members don’t have any role in news coverage,” the Post writes on its site.
From a journalist’s perspective, there’s nothing out of place in the Project Vertias video. Lamothe talks about the editorials, which he or any other news reporter are not involved in, and he says the Post always has its facts correct, even if they focus a little too much on Trump and not enough on other stories.
The video then switches to director of product for the Post, Joey Marburger, who talk about how they think about Trump coverage, and how, “if Trump just disappeared tomorrow, our traffic would drop by thirty percent.”
Well, of course he thinks about that. In his own words, his job, “is basically responsible for every way that you interact with (the Post’s) journalism, except print.”
What the key is that Marburger, as director of product, is in no way, shape or form responsible for what news content goes out. There’s a separation there, just like there’s a separation between news writers from the editorial board and sales staff.
Project Veritas and President Trump are working hard at exploiting this lack of knowledge and deriding many respectable news organizations.
Unfortunately, that’s made extremely easy when reporters are making mistakes, for whatever reason, in their sourcing and fact checking.
But these mistakes are not evidence of a liberal media agenda or fake news. They’re mistakes made by individual reporters and editors who work extremely hard to make sure the information they publish is correct and in context.
Mistakes will be made, and rightfully, criticism and skepticism should follow. But there’s a big difference between taking news stories with a grain of salt and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Check multiple sources. Read opposing viewpoints. Know the difference between news and opinion.
That’s the only way we’re going to move forward as a nation.