Guardrails for Describing Fake News, Misinformation, and Disinformation

Perhaps the most distasteful national omelet we’ve been served during the past four years has been the one that has mixed together an unsavory combination of three ingredients: fake news, misinformation, and disinformation.

While many express growing concerns and look for ways to deal with them, that may be difficult – if not impossible – as long as we use these terms without any agreed-upon definitions that set useful boundaries and are easy to understand among the public at large.  The alternative is to continue repeating the mantra “fake news-misinformation- disinformation” so often that it loses meaning, or using the terms interchangeably so that they become permanently blurred in our minds.

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Why Distrust of News Needs More Sophisticated Analysis

With a start of a new year, some notable public attitudes about critical institutions seem to be on a downward trend.  These include traditional media, like newspapers, broadcast stations, and cable networks, which are often thrown together in opinion polls aimed at gaining key insight into their credibility with audiences of readers and viewers.

The Edelman Trust Barometer found only 46 percent of Americans trust traditional media.  This is the lowest number recorded since the data was first tracked two decades ago.  It found 58 percent of Americans believe that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting one ideology or political position than with informing the public” and found over half also think that the Fourth Estate is “trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”

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First Amendment Still Shines During Toughest of Times

Two hundred and thirty-one years ago this week, Congress passed a collection of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, 10 of which would become the Bill of Rights.  Foremost in the Bill of Rights is the First Amendment, which allows Americans to worship how they please, speak their minds openly, and have their voices heard by their government.

Our Founding Fathers, in their infinite wisdom, also included in the First Amendment the right to a free press.  They understood that our democracy could not survive without the freedom to report the news without fear or favor.  The times may have changed; that principle has not.

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Early Voting Brings New Media Challenges In Advertising and Editorial Endorsements

From shifting commercial placements to premature newspaper endorsements, this year’s early balloting procedures are having a massive effect on media operations.  Political strategists are figuring out how and more importantly when to place ads in this unprecedented season of extensive early voting. 

The Halloween weekend deluge of campaign ads just before Election Day on Nov. 3 may be meaningless if up to half of voters have already cast their ballots.  In a related vein, the ripple effect of advertising decisions also affects ad timing for down-ballot races, where voters may need more coaxing.

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Ending the Media Versus Police Tumult

Whatever happens with police reform legislation in Congress, there is no reason to expect that protection of reporters and media will figure into the proposed “best practices” of how journalists should be treated during tense and often violent situations such as we’ve seen in the past month.  Generalized protections already exist in the First Amendment, but as the brutal incidents of the past month show, law enforcement officers can recklessly bypass those enshrined barriers.

A slew of reports – some of them admittedly self-pitying – emerged in recent weeks with frightening details about how print and electronic journalists have been attacked by law enforcement officers.  It appears that sometimes reporters were singled out as they sought to cover the protests and demonstrations that erupted around the world after George Floyd’s death-by-knee in Minneapolis.

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An Independent Press: Essential to Our Democracy

We are living in challenging times for those who depend on the work of a free press.  Every day, journalists across the globe encounter censorship, harassment, and violence.  In every part of the world, authoritarian rulers are increasing their grip on the press, trying to prevent reporters from holding the powerful to account.

The Washington Post is sadly familiar with these attacks.  Our reporter Jason Rezaian was arrested and held inside Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for 544 days, even though he had committed no crime.  We are grateful that he is now free and back at The Washington Post, where his writing often focuses on the importance of press freedom.   

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Broadcasting Today: Energized by Innovation

There is a saying that goes, “Everybody has a story to tell.”

My own NAB Show story began a decade ago – almost to this day, in fact – when I spoke at my first show as the new president and CEO.  On that morning, I shared the story of broadcasters’ unrelenting commitment to always be there for their communities … to inform them … and to help them.

It is a deep-rooted commitment that manifests itself in many ways that often go unnoticed – in ways that have become ingrained in everyday life for millions of Americans.

Our communities turn on the radio to find out what the weather is like before heading to work … to learn how to help their neighbors in need … or to listen to the great personalities who seem like old friends.  They turn on their televisions to watch their favorite local news anchor and to get an unbiased report of what is happening in their communities.

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Who Will Keep the Sun Shining?

The news media’s annual celebration of Sunshine Week, which takes place March 10-16, has always called to mind the importance of access to government information, transparency of public records, and the idea that the free flow of information is an essential element of “good government.”

Created by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) in 2005, the event was timed to coincide with the March 16 birthday of Founding Father James Madison, a strong supporter of the Bill of Rights.  It has always been envisioned as a celebration of the Freedom of Information Act signed into law on July 4, 1966, which outlined mandatory disclosure provisions for federal documents and records.

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Free Speech Week: Celebrating, Reflecting

Free Speech Week has always been a time to celebrate freedom of expression. This year, however, perhaps there should be an element of somber reflection amid the festivities. It’s worth remembering, after all, that the exercise of free speech can have life-or-death consequences in certain parts of the world. How thankful we should be that freedom of speech and freedom of the press can be exercised in this country without fear of such extreme retaliation.

The sad case of Jamal Khashoggi brings this into sharp relief. The disappearance and murder of the Washington Post contributing columnist, which the Saudis now admit occurred at the hands of their own operatives, happened just three weeks before Free Speech Week, October 22 – 28. He joins a long list of journalists from around the world who have disappeared or been killed while working in pursuit of the truth, who spoke out too stridently or too frequently against corrupt government leaders and their abuses of power.

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Speaking Up for a Free Press

Something quite remarkable – unprecedented, actually – is scheduled to take place on Aug. 16. More than 100 newspapers across the country will mount a coordinated editorial response to President Trump’s increasingly frequent attacks on the media. Responding to a rallying cry from the Boston Globe, papers ranging from large metropolitan dailies to small weeklies will publish editorials defending freedom of the press and their critical role in this democracy. They will be joined by members of the broadcast media as well, with the strong support of the Radio-Television Digital News Association.

These editorial writers will be reacting to the constant stream of messages from the president, in tweets and speeches, that the mainstream media are “the enemy of the people,” “fake, fake disgusting news,” “fake news media,” and so forth.

One school of thought has held that replying to such charges is pointless because the president’s pronouncements are either hollow rhetoric or impulsive ramblings or political fodder for his base – or some combination of the three. Furthermore, since the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, and the courts are willing to uphold that freedom, the president’s words can have no real effect on the media. Thus, this line of thinking concludes, the act of replying to hollow assertions becomes a hollow act itself.

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