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THE LAST WORD: Honesty is journalism’s antidote to ‘fake news’

Kerry Hubartt

In the many years I taught a beginning news writing and reporting class as an adjunct faculty member at IPFW while working as a journalist full-time at The News-Sentinel, I made a point of trying to get across to my students the concept of being objective as a reporter.

The essence of my instruction was that news stories should never contain the writer’s opinion.

The longer I taught the class, it seems, the more suspect that ideal became due to the heightened frenzy in recent years over “fake news.”

Opinion, of course, can turn up in news writing in more ways than a reporter’s blatant use of subjective conclusions. News can be “slanted” by interpretation of facts, imbalance in sources, omissions of available information and the overall emphasis of certain facts over others. Therein, to me, is the crux of what fake news really means — and I believe it’s become more of a problem in commentary and social media than what I believe is normally responsible news coverage.

The reason I bring this up is because of a story I read last week by a writer from the Greencastle Banner-Graphic, who summarized a recent panel discussion at DePauw University on the responsibility of journalists in disseminating information.

The Pringle Institute for Ethics at DePauw hosted three experts to tackle the issue of neutrality for journalists and news sources. The panelists were Peter Catapano, editor of “The Stone,” a philosophy and ethics blog published by The New York Times; Gary Hicks, professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Ill.; and William Hamrick, professor emeritus of philosophy at SIU and a 1966 graduate of DePauw University.

Greencastle reporter Brand Selvia wrote that the discussion began with the question of what being “neutral” means to news sources when they report news or create content.

Catapano made some excellent points in terms of journalistic responsibility, saying, journalists must separate the news article from the editorial.

“In journalism,” he said, “there has been a traditional border between news and opinion. … The journalist is responsible to deliver the news to the reader without that opinion.”

He also aptly pointed out that even when writing opinion, journalists must back up their viewpoints with research.

But the whole idea of journalists being “neutral” set my teeth on edge, because I have learned through the years that it is virtually impossible to do, and that if a news writer actually pulled it off, the end product would be a grocery list of facts and quotes.

So I appreciated the comments of panelist Hicks, who said, “We need to responsibly report the facts. The polarization of the media is a real problem now. However, it is a mistake to believe that journalists need to be ‘neutral’ in their reporting, because you can give fringe ideas an audience.”

What he was saying, wrote Selvia, was that journalists must be responsible with these narratives rather than neutral.

Rather than robotically neutral transcribers of information, Hicks described journalists and editors as gatekeepers of information. In other words, they analyze and digest the information they have gathered and then use the facts and comments from sources that explain the story and eliminate content that is irrelevant or inaccurate.

“There is a difference between what is presented and how it is presented,” Hamrick explained. He sees the problem occurring in narratives that can be definitively split between conservative and liberal biases.

Hicks said, “There can’t be neutrality in a definite, literal sense. There is a judgment system in which journalists choose what to do as gatekeepers.”

And, yes, that could be considered subjective, based on the journalist’s knowledge and training. But it should not be based on their particular views or political leaning.

Hicks even said reporters should be honest in their reporting by offering their own their takes on events.

What does that mean?

In my earlier years as a sportswriter, for example, I found that readers could experience what I experienced as a reporter when I accurately chronicled that experience in terms of descriptions that recreated it. Bland, emotionless, colorless writing about facts and figures without the human element, in my opinion, isn’t good journalism.

If a police reporter is on the scene of a crime or accident and is moved by the emotions, words and actions of victims, witnesses and police, won’t the reporter’s description of that make the story more relevant to the reader?

Being objective doesn’t mean being neutral. But it must, indeed, mean being honest.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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