A Humble Proposal To Save Journalism

False fact reporting (“FFR”) has dug its nails into every facet of life around the world.  It has led to ill-advised votes on referendums, the election of incompetent leaders and deepened cynicism to the point that people have stopped even trying to identify valid news sources.  At a more fundamental level, it has broadened the schism between groups with differing political views.  It prays on our worst human instincts, and if unchecked, will lead to the rise of hate-filled nationalist views, which will be countered by well-intentioned, but equally damaging, extreme left views. 

Technological changes have shifted the landscape of journalism and allowed FFR to thrive.  In the past, owning a newspaper involved significant investments in machinery, distribution networks and human capital.  With such significant investments at risk, legitimate news sources were motivated to fact check their stories because the investment was too valuable to ever risk by imperiling one’s credibility.  With internet reporting, no investment is required.  Websites have nothing to lose and thus have no motivation to protect credibility.  If their reporting is outed as being fraudulent, they can simply shut down their site and start another, with no lost value aside from having to re-build readership.

The natural inclination is to hope that the public becomes a more sophisticated consumer, capable of discerning FFR from legitimate news.  This requires the population to be able to assess each new news source they encounter for validity.  This is not a viable solution. 

Legitimate news sources must make the process easy and transparent for the consumer.  They must band together and self-regulate in order to accomplish two tasks (1) motivate legitimate news sources to apply a new and heightened set of journalistic standards that requires the citation of source-documents for their factual assertions, requires writers to separate fact reporting from opinion reporting, and allows examination and criticisms of each article; and (2) convince the public that news sources that fail to apply those standards and avail themselves to criticism are less trustworthy.  Though it would raise the cost of operations, it should allow legitimate news sources to charge for their product or at least benefit from higher volumes of readership, ultimately offsetting the cost.

When a lawyer writes a brief to the court, we have to include assertions of law.  With it, we cite the case or statute substantiating our assertions.  With those citations, the judge can “check our work” and make sure that our source documents say what we represent it says.  The AP (or some other governing body) can force its members to footnote sentences  that include factual assertions, and hyperlink the source document (i.e., the treasury department, an academic study, a Standard & Poor study).  Facts based on “personal knowledge” or “confidential sources” can be noted as such, so that the reader can apply their own judgment on credibility. 

The “facts” section of a report should be clearly delineated from the “conclusions” or “opinions” established by the reporter.  On political pieces, even most “legitimate” news sources these days are so unabashedly partisan that the reader cannot tolerate the “opinion” sections enough to read the “factual reporting” portions.  Separating the two will allow the reader to give credibility to the facts section, even if they are forced to draw their own conclusions/opinions separate from the writer’s.

If a reporter does not comply, they can have their AP credentials revoked.  The AP can establish a process that allows readers to submit challenges if a reporter repeatedly violates.   More importantly, if a reporter cites a source for an assertion and the source disagrees with the reporter’s interpretation, the reporter can likewise be reprimanded or de-accredited.  Lawyers are subject to similar ethics tribunals, sometimes resulting in revocation of their bar license.  Simply having a review mechanism motivates most attorneys to abide by legal ethics standards.  This raises the “barrier to entry” in the legal profession and motivates good behavior by imperiling something of value (membership in the bar).  A similar framework should be applied to the AP.  Those that repeatedly violate, should lose the benefit of their continued AP membership. 

Once reporting is more reliable and transparent, the AP must educate the public as to why these measures make their reporting more reliable.  The public should know that they can check the source documents themselves, and are encouraged to file reports if the source documents do not support the facts asserted.  More importantly, the public must be made weary of news sources that are NOT so transparent.  AP members can keep a “watchdog” list of popular FFR sources, with analysis on articles that are clearly false.  The AP can  cite source materials proving the false claims in the FFR articles, allowing the public to use their own judgment and eventually cease consumption from popular FFR news sources.  This would only need to be done at the inception of the new AP standards.  Eventually, the public will be trained to be a sophisticated enough consumer  to expect citations on source documents, and will eventually use an “AP Accreditation” as a shorthand for “legitimate news source.” 

To date, newspapers such as the New York Times have bought ad time simply stating “we are more reliable.”  However, they have not explained to the public why that should be believed.  The public does not know what their source documents are for their factual assertions, it doesn’t have a method for examining their news stories with transparency or challenging false articles, and is ultimately asked to just have faith.  Without a compelling reason to believe legitimate news sources, the proliferation of FFR will continue to erode society. 

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