Fact Fights Back

In the course of the ongoing tumult over so-called fake news, it seems that many people have discovered something new. It’s called: Fact.

Let’s start with a story, a true one. Once upon a time — in the 1950s, actually — an ambitious young news producer began his swift rise at one of the major news networks. At the time, it had earned a reputation for a high level of professionalism, and the veterans were wary of the newcomer. The word on him was: “Watch out for Ploni, he doesn’t know what a fact is!”

For all his skill in presenting news in the shiny new electronic medium, he had not been schooled in the newspaper world, where the first thing a reporter learns (or at least was supposed to learn) was that accuracy is paramount — not hearsay, not innuendo, not propaganda, not hype. Verified and verifiable fact is the bottom line of reporting the news. And the surest way for a young reporter to get fired was to be dishonest or even careless with the facts.

Of course, the industry has known its “yellow journalism,” and even the most respected news organizations have been guilty of bias, as media coverage of the Mideast conflict evinces almost every day. But despite many deviations, there was at least a standard of professional integrity, and people who wanted reliable reporting usually knew where to find it.

In recent years, with the advent of online news and social media networks, such standards have all but disappeared. Print journalism has failed to compete with the electronic newcomer, where traditional adherence to fact has frequently been replaced with wild polemics, unabashed bias and scurrilous lies. In other words, with purveyors of information who “don’t know what a fact is.”

But the latest news is that this situation is changing for the better. Some news organizations have fought back with regularly featured fact-checking, rating both public figures and their own staff for accuracy. While fact-checking can also be manipulated to favor one party or politician over another, presumably the technique has a salutary impact. It makes it harder to get away with lying and deception, not to mention plain ignorance, than it used to be.

The real surprise is that the latest research indicates that traditional news sources are making a comeback. The hue and cry over fake news and the fact-checking response have made the general public more aware of what’s going on, and the natural desire for truth has begun to reassert itself.

Over the last year, the number of people who consume traditional news on a regular basis, and who frequently share or post news content, has surged from 26 percent to 40 percent of respondents, according to Edelman’s, a global communications marketing firm.

This datum shows a reversal of the trend away from the dying newspapers toward the blogosphere, representing what the researchers hailed as “a stunning rise in the consumption and sharing of information from traditional news over social media.”

Furthermore, a poll by Gallup and The Knight Foundation in 2018 found that the key to this astonishing trend reversal — akin to raising the dead industry — lies in “efforts aimed at improving accuracy, enhancing transparency and reducing bias.”

A study at Louisiana State University suggests journalists speaking in defense of the profession can change minds; whereas when they don’t fight back, “consumers assume they are conceding the point that they’re biased.” (Or, in Talmudic terminology, shtikah k’hodaah.)

For a change, the news is good news. The overweening dominance of unprofessional purveyors of misinformation and disinformation has been overrated. We may never again see a journalistic landscape populated by a handful of elite institutions, and print will continue to lead at best an uneasy and precarious existence alongside the new technologies.

But mourning the end of responsible news-gathering appears to have been premature. The world has not been given over entirely or eternally to the malefactors of an unlicensed medium.

Not that the story is over. Trust in traditional news remains below what it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, the antics of news anarchists are still very much with us. Witness the publication earlier this month of a 100-percent-bogus edition of The Washington Post that was distributed around the capital and posted online in a format identical to the real thing.

“UNPRESIDENTED,” read the giant banner headline. “TRUMP HASTILY DEPARTS WHITE HOUSE, ENDING CRISIS.”

The anti-Trump prank was soon revealed to be the work of a political activist by the name of L.A. Kauffman. Although Kauffman made the point that the phony paper bore the date May 1, an obvious giveaway that it was not real news, it was still indicative of an atmosphere that persists in which almost any deception is permissible to achieve a political end.

The future for fact-based journalism looks brighter than it did a year ago. But it still has a long way to go. And that’s a fact.