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THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

How to distinguish fake news from the real thing

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Let me say this upfront: This column is biased in support of newspapers.

Whether struggling big-city dailies or thriving community weeklies like this one, whether online or in print, it is my opinion newspapers are vital to democracy and a force for social good.

But I am worried about the future of “news” in this country. I am worried too many Americans now see newspapers as old news. Instead, they get their news from dark places on the Internet and spread it on Facebook and Twitter. Facts get ignored, conspiracy theories take hold.

Since I have spent almost my entire life working for newspapers, would you expect me to think any other way?

My journalism career began when I complained to my hometown newspaper that it was ignoring the local high school basketball team. I just happened to play on that team. The publisher asked me to cover it myself. Not yet versed in journalism ethics, I would play a game, go home and write a story. So much for Friday night dates. I was hooked.

It has been quite a journey. I have taken notes while sitting in a fire truck in New Franklin, Mo. while the city council, meeting in the fire house, discussed a dog leash law.

I have interviewed Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam about the war and Debbie Reynolds in Beverly Hills about her remembrances of being elected Miss Burbank of 1950.

Most of my career was spent as a senior editor at the defunct Houston Post and later at the Houston Chronicle. I have dealt with wars, hurricanes, shuttle disasters, political upheaval and more murders than I can remember.

Now, in retirement, it is time to vent.

As mentioned, I am angered and appalled that some Americans disparage newspapers while at the same time promoting material on social networks that is not only false, but often intentionally false.

This is not to say newspapers don’t make mistakes. They do … and I have. But I have never written or edited anything that I knew to be inaccurate or unfair. And I don’t personally know any journalists who have.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can say that about many of the items posted on websites and social networks. The question is what to do about it without weakening the First Amendment.

Facebook recently banned seven of its most controversial users – many of whom are conservatives – immediately inflaming the debate about the power and accountability of large technology companies.

While I won’t shed many tears that Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan have been evicted by Facebook, I think another option is for us all to become better consumers of news. We need to arm ourselves with the knowledge of what makes a credible news source.

Here is my simple checklist to help you tell whether a news source is trying to be fair:

1. Does your news source include responses from the accused in articles? Subjects of stories deserve a chance to respond whether they are public officials or private citizens.

2. Does the headline reflect the essence of the story? Headlines are often written by someone other than the reporter. They are written to entice readers into the story. Online sites often go overboard because they need the clicks.

3. Does the story rely on anonymous sources? Granting anonymity isn’t bad as long as the rules are obeyed. The New York Times, for example, requires anonymous sources be used only for information it thinks is newsworthy and credible and can’t be reported any other way. Besides the reporter, at least one editor must know the identity of the source. Usually the story will offer a hint as to why the source is anonymous.

4. Does it use loaded words? A simple adjective can get even the best reporters in trouble. Buzz words like right-wing and left-wing, or liberal and conservative, are often used carelessly.

5. How does a news source handle corrections and mistakes? Everyone makes errors. Correcting them is important. The Chronicle reported last year that a reporter resigned after being accused of making up quotes. I am glad the newspaper came clean, launched an independent investigation and retracted eight stories and corrected 64 others.

6. Does your news source separate news from opinion? That is important, and that is why I have told you this is my opinion. Thanks for hearing me out.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)