Tomorrow, I will return to the classroom after winter recess. As a professor of journalism, I am presented with new challenges. This time, the hurdles aren’t closing newspapers or digital advances. Today, they are the phrases “alternative facts,” “fake news” and “the dishonest media.”
We have always struggled with the marriage of capitalism (selling newspapers, subscriptions, ads, etc.) and ethics, the meshing of satiating an audience and delivering the dryness of a town council meeting.
But, this… this is different.
In the name of creating an open and inclusive classroom environment, most professors attempt to mute their personal opinions. Right or wrong, I don’t do that. I attempt to be transparent, but fair – just as I attempted to do as a reporter.
The White House press secretary told the press corps that the inauguration celebration of the 45th President of the United States was the biggest one ever - “period” – despite evidence that proved otherwise.
When confronted with this, the president’s counselor defended the act as a presentation of “alternative facts.”
Tomorrow, I return to the classroom to teach the fundamentals and intricacies of a profession so vital to our republic, yet so fragile in the hands of fallible humans.
How in the name of accuracy does one process and present information to an audience when the sources are not only determined to undermine you, but when they also offer only, um, “alternative facts?” And, how does one present this dilemma to college students in a non-divisive manner?
Tomorrow, I am going to try to start to answer these questions.
No matter how one feels about the new White House administration, new challenges are at hand. Maybe American journalism has gotten lazy, or maybe it has simply adapted to a less demanding audience. Regardless, the microscope is on us – educators and practitioners -- like never before.
The first thing I’m going to do is tell my students why I believe journalism is important. I’m going to tell them the best journalism in the world can be there, but if the audience isn’t absorbing it, it’s useless.
Next, facts are facts. Facts are different from perceptions. While we may perceive facts differently, we can’t argue their existence. Because there is no perception without the fact in the first place.
Finally, all the tenets of journalism that have existed still do today: An understanding of news values, an ability to report with several reliable sources, a talent to craft a compelling, balanced narrative.
Administrations don’t change that.
While conflict and celebrity may be sexy and attract more likes or retweets, all of the news values must be understood and articulated.
When any source – whether it be the White House press secretary or a high school football coach -- presents journalists with information, journalists are responsible for verifying that information through triangulation.
Educators must be more vigilant than ever. And, while mistakes aren’t acceptable – they do happen. But, we must show students that they are going to have to work harder to eliminate them because credibility is always on the line.
If the immediacy of the social media environment has coaxed the journalism industry into loosening ethical standards, then educators must analyze it a little harder, put a little more attention on it.
If the financial pressures to produce more in less time have put journalists in the cramped position of committing more errors, then teachers must hit the pause button and focus our students on the process.
What will this look like in the classroom? More "serious" topics to cover. More challenging sources to track down. No anonymous sources - no exceptions. Lots more discussion and reflection.
My colleagues and I have a lot of work to do. Despite my political leanings, my fears and frustrations – or, maybe because of them – I must show students how “alternative facts” aren’t facts at all. I must also show them journalists’ failures and small errors, and how those mishaps open the door to doubt.
I believe in journalism. This semester, I have no choice but to lean into that belief.
Molly Yanity, Ph.D.