By Sheryl Lilly Pidgeon
I am a journalist. It gives me a great sense of purpose to bring news, knowledge and enrichment to readers on a variety of topics. The ability to learn, educate and share motivates me every day. By extension, I am a proud member of the news media, and I have never been more concerned than I am now by what is happening in the United States today.
I have plenty of personal opinions, but as a writer, my mission is to deliver fact-based editorial content with journalistic integrity from trusted sources and let readers draw their own conclusions. Attacks on freedom of the press and freedom of speech have risen to a thundering crescendo over the last few years. Our First Amendment rights include the freedom of speech and are at the very core of our country’s founding principles. I am saddened, angered and, frankly, fed up with the assaults on those rights, the attacks on the press, and the abuse of the term “fake news.”
In our country we have an extremely broad group of people and businesses whose jobs are to cover news and report facts so the public can be properly and fully informed. The core principles of journalism are truthfulness, accuracy, fairness, impartiality, humanity and accountability. So why is there so much mistrust surrounding journalists and the media, and what can be done to halt this downward spiral?
First, we must acknowledge and educate the public that the term “the media” is no longer an accurate one-stop description of the plethora and diversity of news outlets, reporters, journalists, photojournalists, bloggers and the myriad of others who report on and cover the news through television, in print, on radio or online. With the influx of social media influencers and the opportunity for any individual with a smartphone to become (whether intentionally or not) a journalist, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the public to discern opinion vs. fact and to find an unbiased and reliable news source. Emily Quigley, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas, teaches that journalists need to work harder and do a better job earning the consumers’ trust. “You’re not going to be able to persuade everyone who has made up their mind against the media,” says Quigley. “Journalists need to be vigilant to do good work going forward so we can regain the trust of news consumers.” And I agree. As an industry, we journalists must remain vigilant in our own pursuit of the truth. Sowing distrust hurts us all.
This brings me to the hot topic of “fake news.” This term, described as a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media or online social media, must not be mistaken for describing news we do not agree with. To disagree is our Constitutional right. To call someone a liar or to call news “fake” because we disagree with facts is plain wrong. This unethical practice is becoming a frightening norm. People in power who have an enormous bully pulpit and use it to squelch information they disapprove of and/or to sway public opinion set a frightening precedent which does not bode well for the future of our democracy. Also, many mainstream media sources have become increasingly political and more intent on persuasion rather than delivering facts. Anchors and reporters are gaining followers and fans just like Hollywood celebrities, sports icons and civic leaders. Thus, the public has to be more educated, aware and adept at discerning fact from fiction so we are not swept up in the rhetoric and opinions of others who are tenured and trained in the art of debate, marketing and manipulation.
This is not an easy task. I have a degree in journalism and have practiced my trade for over 30 years, and I am regularly challenged to disseminate what is authentic and what is being skewed by savvy marketers and political strategists. While I believe that many mainstream reporters are intent on delivering fact-based news, I find myself increasingly turned off by the show hosts who blatantly hammer home their opinions, even when I personally agree with their sentiment and/or share their frustration. Believe me when I say I can hear your interviews, I can see the stats you are sharing, I can assess the information and I can draw my own conclusions.
While journalism students across top academic institutions in the U.S. are learning ways to navigate this changing journalistic landscape, I hope they can be the voice of much-needed change. As they study and debate media ethics, media law, media monopolies, corporate responsibility, social profitability and more, we have a new generation to work with legal scholars, community leaders and the public to reverse the negative perceptions of media sources. I personally resolve to speak out and be a part of a solution. After all, if we don’t get this ship righted, we could discourage the next generation of journalists from entering the playing field, and then who will be left to tell the truth?
Sheryl Lilly Pidgeon is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Good Life Family magazine and has worked in communications for over 30 years in the Dallas Metroplex. She has served on numerous boards including Texas Woman’s Foundation, Girls, Inc., and NCJW and currently serves on the board of the ADL Texas-Oklahoma Region.