Fake News: The Assault on a Free Press in the United States

In recent years, fabricated news and a skepticism for media objectivity has slowly eroded public trust of credible news organizations in the United States. There have been several studies conducted into whether an increased stringency of media credentialing requirement would alleviate or compound this issue. When discussing the proposition of media credentialing standards, two primary solutions exist: government oversight credentialing and inter-organizational credentialing standards. Both resolutions present their own issues regarding media objectivity and credentialization. Recently, ABC reported candidate Trump directed Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials, which if true would directly violate the Logan Act. However, ABC later claimed the report was erroneous and printed a retraction of the story, culminating in the suspension of news anchor Brian Ross.1 This event displays the problem of accountability in recent journalism, especially in an age of twenty-four-hour broadcasts, and the necessary steps when dealing with these issues. ABC’s response to the false information shows an increased understanding of how the media is perceived. Since the 2016 presidential election, distrust in the media and falsely printed stories have become more prominent. It is therefore incumbent upon individual journalists to hold themselves to a higher standard, due to the lack of viable external solutions. The evidence accumulated in the research of this topic has shown that the public must understand how news organizations produce their information, based on a combination of ownership of media holding companies and objective bias, and critically analyze and comprehend these biases rather than immediately discredit any reporting.

            One of the primary arguments used by those attempting to emplace a credentialing apparatus for all journalists comes in the form of government oversight and control. While government entities often oversee all facets of civilized society, from environmental protection to fair labor practices, the media apparatus has always remained separate. For journalists to be successful in performing research and inquiry into all matters of social and civil affairs, they must function as an individual unit. While government oversight and mandates are effective in other facets, they are wholly unacceptable when discussing media oversight. There are legal arguments for Congressional oversight and accountability. Scott Neinas argues the case that Congress should narrowly define who qualifies as a journalist and that we must train them in ethical standards of practice.2 This idea of journalistic integrity with minimal government oversight is an appealing prospect from a legal standpoint. People have become increasingly dependent on unethical sources in recent years, like Breitbart News and Infowars, and there have been recent outcries in the American population for more stringent media control. The biggest causality for this has been an increase in false stories that have saturated social media sites. One must be careful in sliding down the path of eventual government control, though. State-media is a serious problem in non-democratic countries. The most severe example is North Korea. State propaganda and false information is unchallenged in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) controls distribution of all information in the country. As of 2017, North Korea stood at 180 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index.3 In contrast, the United States holds the rank of 43.4 With recent attacks on the First Amendment, dating back to the Obama administration’s attack on whistleblowers and becoming more apparent in the current administration, it is easy to see how government could limit the press into a form of state media.

            Government credentialing also presents the problems of investigation suppression, especially when related to governmental policies or issues, and grants power to conspiracy theorists. In 1972, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered information regarding the infamous Watergate Scandal. Their reporting was not only responsible for exposing key evidence and testimony regarding the investigation but also gave rise to many independent investigative nonprofits that are still around today. Among them, The Center for Investigate Reporting, started in 1977 in Berkeley, is the oldest non-profit news organization in the United States.5 This independence from government oversight and control has been crucial to informing the public about a large swath of political issues. When the founding fathers enacted the First Amendment, it was to ensure that citizens benefited from a free press rather than elected officials.6 Research has concluded that government control of media entities, much like state-run media, presents an issue of free press accountable to all citizens rather than lobbyists or politicians. In the modern world, a state-controlled media apparatus also presents the problem of supplying additional power and leverage to conspiracy theorist sites, like Infowars. By allowing a government office to manipulate and control the release of information or the standards of release, these sites can use those actions to reaffirm a sense of validity that “big brother” is monitoring and controlling all information.

            Letting media organizations present their own credentialing standards and control is the best of the currently existing options in the field. Media companies have always been responsible for vetting their information before release with senior publishers and editors. Most of the papers in the U.S. have started from humble beginnings, but now they exist with extensive board members controlling the output of information. This somewhat democratic process of promoting members to a board from within, who bring their own ethical standards to the table, has been effective. This process is not without its own pitfalls and problems, though. In the last two decades, billionaires and entrepreneurs have increasingly purchased media holding companies and subsidiaries with the explicit intent of controlling the output of that information while eliminating advisory boards. In December 2015, billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal after extensive coverage of a legal battle he faced. The Review-Journal was a libertarian paper whose journalists agreed with Adelson on some issues, but were often critical of some business dealings he had arranged in the city. After the Adelson purchase, journalists at the Review-Journal felt a requirement to cover issues differently than before. Because of this, nearly all reporters and editors left the paper. The primary reason for this move was that some felt the Adelson family “curtailed editorial freedom, murky business dealings and unethical managers.”7 The same type of scenario played out when the New York Times published an article criticizing billionaires who were purchasing media holding companies. In the article they failed to mention their billionaire mogul, Carlos Slim Helu. The purposeful exclusion of his name is a glaring display of the danger inherent in information control from the executive power of billionaire owners.

            Internal control and credentialing is possible for already established large media holding companies, but in the digital age more teens and young adults are getting their news from social media and satirical sources. Research from Regina Marchi in the Journal of Communication Inquiry, found that although these sources do not hold themselves up to any level of journalistic integrity, adolescents who obtained their information this way scored higher on campaign knowledge tests than adults who received their news/information from syndicated papers and outlets.8 There is also the problem of creating new ethical standards in relation to digital journalism. Social media has broadened the reach of individual publishers and freelance journalists, but there has been research on the bias that exists as people often search for what they already know and believe. This affirmation bias of information has nearly eliminated that ability to reach diverse and broader communities because of the “fragmentation that characterizes digital media.”9

            To effectively credential themselves, journalists must understand the ethical problems that face them in the digital age and how their work has become more biased and dividing than ever before. Journalism may have not created the current problem that exists, but it is incumbent upon all reputable journalists to help reverse or stagnate the declined acceptance of a free press. To solve any problem, you must first recognize that a problem exists. Journalism has always held the standard for understanding and conveying current social issues to the public. In an age of “fake news” outcries, journalists must not only sell their work, but their methods. The best way to combat these allegations is to maintain individual ethical standards and boundaries while narrating what journalism accomplishes and how news is conveyed to the public.10 In turn, the public must understand how media organizations review and disseminate information. Objective bias does not always equate to false reporting, but the truth of matters is often between the lines. Understanding conservative and liberal agenda leaning agencies allows the public to make more informed decisions on how to receive information, ultimately leading to better government accountability and decisions in the voting booth.

  1. Cristiano Lima, “ABC News Draws Fire for Erroneous Trump-Flynn Report,” POLITICO, last modified December 1, 2017, https://www.politico.com/story/2017/12/01/abc-news-flynn-plea-clarification-conservatives-275981.
  2. Scott Neinas, “A Skinny Shield Is Better: Why Congress Should Propose a Federal Reporters’ Shield Statute That Narrowly Defines Journalists,” U. Tol. L. Rev. 40 (2009): 225.
  3. Reporters Without Borders, “United States : First Amendment Under Increasing Attack | Reporters Without Borders,” RSF, accessed November 28, 2017, https://rsf.org/en/united-states.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jill Drew, “The New Investigators,” Columbia Journalism Review, last modified June 2010, http://archives.cjr.org/feature/the_new_investigators.php.
  6. Kevin Smith, “Independence is key to ethical journalism,” Quill 99, no. 5 (September/October 2011), 35, http://web.a.ebscohost.com.mutex.gmu.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=bfda77c5-15a8-47d0-a91e-bcc5b1b31274%40sessionmgr4007&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=66754604&db=oihhttp://web.a.ebscohost.com.mutex.gmu.edu/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=bfda77c5-15a8-47d0-a91e-bcc5b1b31274%40sessionmgr4007&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=66754604&db=oih.
  7. Laura Wagner, “More Journalists Leaving ‘Las Vegas Review-Journal’ After Sale To Billionaire,” NPR.org, last modified May 9, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/05/09/477423367/more-journalists-leaving-las-vegas-review-journal-after-sale-to-billionaire.
  8. Regina Marchi, “With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic “Objectivity”,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 36, no. 3 (October 2012), 253, http://journals.sagepub.com.mutex.gmu.edu/doi/10.1177/0196859912458700.
  9. Jan Leach, “Creating Ethical Bridges From Journalism to Digital News,” Nieman Reports 63, no. 3 (Fall 2009), 43, http://niemanreports.org/articles/creating-ethical-bridges-from-journalism-to-digital-news/.
  10. Stephen Tanner, “Journalism Can Establish its Credentials-All it Takes is a Little Research,” Asia Pacific Media Educator 25, no. 1 (June 2015), 45, http://journals.sagepub.com.mutex.gmu.edu/doi/10.1177/1326365X15575569.