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Opinion When people are properly informed, fake news doesn’t stand a chance

Detained Reuters journalist Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone are escorted by police as they leave after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar, Aug. 20, 2018.

Ann Wang/Reuters

Stephen J. Adler is editor-in-chief of Reuters. He was a keynote speaker at the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom’s annual luncheon in Ottawa to mark UNESCO press freedom day.

These are treacherous times for journalists and – consequently – for the billions of people around the globe whose lives can be informed, improved and sometimes even saved by the work we do. At a time when the world’s need for accurate information is unprecedented, those who seek to gather and share it are under relentless attack. More than 100 journalists and media workers were killed over the past 18 months. Shockingly, of the 860 journalists who have been murdered since 1992, in roughly 85 per cent of those cases, no one has been held responsible.

On World Press Freedom Day, more than 250 journalists are behind bars – including my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleagues Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were set up, arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison because they accurately and fairly reported a horrific massacre of Rohingya Muslims by military and police forces in Myanmar. This is a global disgrace, and we continue to fight for their release. But as Time magazine noted in naming them among its Persons of the Year: “They are representative of a broader fight by countless others around the world … who risk all to tell the story of our time.”

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Understanding how we got to this point is important. Since 9/11, civil liberties of all kinds have been diminished in the name of national security. Migrant tides unleashed by terrorism-related wars in the Middle East have helped stoke authoritarianism and populism around the world. The often-harsh regimes that came to power have solidified their control by harassing and persecuting journalists, shutting down or co-opting independent news outlets and changing their laws to criminalize reporting that doesn’t flatter those in charge.

In the past several years alone, more than a dozen countries have instituted or proposed criminal laws against “fake news” – a pernicious term that was once used to describe intentional disinformation but that has been subverted to conflate what is inaccurate with what is merely unwanted.

The consequent retreat of the United States from its role as a powerful force standing up for press freedom is as significant as any other factor affecting the media. Instead of working to defend and protect journalists, the U.S. President derides us as enemies of the people, and his rhetoric is echoed – and acted on – by government leaders around the world.

Meanwhile, the unprecedented mass dissemination of hate speech and fabrications – dressed and styled to look like news on social media – has undermined respect for responsible journalism everywhere.

As we decry these developments, we mustn’t despair but rather take concrete steps to buttress press freedom and restore public trust in the good work that we do.

We need to make our advocacy for press freedom a truly apolitical pursuit.

We have to understand that the best way to advocate for ourselves is not to advocate against any politician or political moment, but to push for broader access to information, stronger legal protections, and greater security for our journalists. Pursuing these goals systematically will be more effective than any partisan outrage. In fact, recent studies in the United States have shown that when press advocacy appears to cater to elite sentiment – when it is self-righteous and inwardly focused – it simply fails.

I’m often the only person on “future of news” panels to express the aspiration to be objective. The prevailing view is not only that objectivity is impossible but that claiming neutrality is hypocritical because everyone has an agenda. My response is that journalists – like doctors, accountants, pilots, and hockey players – practise a craft that has everything to do with skill and accuracy and nothing to do with partisanship. I believe our craft is a noble – even at times a glorious – one, and that it is at its best when it is remains a craft, not a campaign.

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We need to communicate the benefits of independent journalism because we can no longer assume that people recognize its value.

In recent years, journalists have uncovered the corporate greed and lax oversight behind a devastating opioid crisis; they have spurred the release of thousands of slaves working in the fishing industry; they have shielded victims of human trafficking, hazardous working conditions, ethnic cleansing, unsafe drinking water and sex abuse in multiple countries. They have brought down corrupt leaders on several continents. We must talk about all this work as the powerful force for good that it is. As jurist Louis Brandeis wrote in 1914: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” This is still true today.

We can talk, too, about the less dramatic but equally powerful benefit of independent journalism: the gathering, dissemination and curation of information. We need to remind people that news is just one category of information, and that accurate information will always underlie good decisions.

Consider the financial community. Traders and investors don’t care about our opinions; they need to know what actually happened so they can make smart investment choices. Business executives need to know about tariffs, trade regulations, work rules and the activities of their competitors so they can take informed action about where and how to run their businesses. And, of course, individuals need accurate information about schools, neighbourhoods, insurance, mortgages, jobs, crime and traffic, so they can make intelligent decisions about where and how to live.

Journalists are part of this information ecosystem, and people’s lives would be far worse if everything was just advertising, propaganda and spin. We in the news business must say all this publicly and frequently.

To engender trust in journalism, journalists must be trustworthy.

We need to exercise our press freedom in the public interest and be transparent about our methods and the impact of our work. Too many people – encouraged by unsupportive world leaders – believe that we make up our sources and don’t care about the facts. To combat these beliefs, we need to step down from our lofty perches at times and show how our work is done. At Reuters, for example, we publish a feature, called Backstory, to inform users of how we’ve gone about reporting particular stories that generate wide interest or potential controversy. Many other news organizations have similar initiatives, and I’d encourage others to pursue them as well.

Journalists should report more positive news.

I’m not talking about offering up warm and fuzzy features but rather about providing the context people need in order to understand their circumstances and their choices. Stories of conflict, disaster and mayhem will always garner attention. Global warming, wars and immigration are realities. But when looking at basic indicators – such as literacy, poverty, disease and hunger – concluding that the world has never been a better place is also reasonable. Extreme poverty had been sliced roughly in half in recent decades; access to electricity and running water has risen significantly; child mortality has plummeted thanks to vaccinations and public-health campaigns, while new HIV infections among children have been cut in half.

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The nature of news makes covering long-term trends challenging. When global change comes slowly and without obvious drama, we don’t always think of it as newsworthy. But we need to share the positive trends in order to do our jobs well.

We must work to build media-literacy training into school curriculums wherever and whenever we can.

I’ve come to this cause recently and passionately. We as journalists can do our work well, strive for accuracy, advocate for our freedoms and fact-check ourselves and each other. But our work will only matter if people have the skills to distinguish between the factual and the fake, detect and weigh biases and assess the reliability of a wide range of sources. Only when they’ve become informed – and perhaps sometimes even enlightened – can we count on their support for free and independent journalism. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Less well known was his next line: “but I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

Translated into more contemporary terms, that means: wide, unimpeded, uncensored, unharassed distribution of content across all possible platforms – and it means a public with well-developed media-literacy skills. At least that’s what I heard him say.

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