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Line between news, propaganda blurs – and everyone should be concerned

Journalists, management and readers all have a role to play in ensuring truth, facts get reported
A screengrab from a Deadspin video edited to show dozens of anchors from across the United States reading the exact same statement word for word. Image: Deadspin

By Todd Humber

When news broke in 2013 that two reporters for the Toronto Star had seen a video of Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack, a good friend questioned the veracity of the reporting.

In his mind, he thought the two journalists who broke the story — Kevin Donovan and Robyn Doolittle — had made it up to “sell newspapers.”

The comment blindsided me. But it also reminded me that a good portion of the public doesn’t trust journalists, something that has only gotten worse in the ensuing five years.

The Star refused to pay for the video, so it didn’t have it. But I didn’t need to see the video to know it existed. I trust professional journalists at respected outlets to report the facts they see and hear.

Clearly, not everyone shares this faith.

This is an era where, if you don’t agree with the news or like the facts, you can scream “FAKE NEWS!” at the top of your lungs. And people just might believe you.

An era where you can shrug off coverage you don’t like as a ratings grab.

An era where anyone can publish a legitimate-looking news site in minutes and few readers bother to find out who published the information and why.

An era where you can search and find the news you agree with (because it will be out there), and share headlines to your heart’s content on social media with nary a fact-checker in sight.

Just yesterday, I saw a link to a story on Facebook, shared by an old high school friend, about cocaine being found in cans of Coors Light.

The story reads well enough, includes a quote from an FDA spokesperson and ends by saying Coors Light has been forced to suspend beer production for 30 days while an investigation is carried out.

Shocking.  Also, clearly, fake.

Yet nobody questioned whether this tall tale was true, nobody seemed to notice it was from a site called Huzlers.com that bills itself as “the most infamous fauxtire & satire entertainment website in the world.” (One of the stories featured on the same page was headlined, “New study claims dinosaurs extinction was because they liked pineapple on pizza.” Which, well, maybe.)

Donovan and Doolittle didn’t make the Ford story up. But it created such a furor, and strong denials and accusations from Ford and his supporters about media bias. It didn’t die down until police revealed they had obtained the video and it was entered into court as evidence. (And even then…)

To further muddy the waters of what is believable, this is also an era where even trusted news sources might need to be viewed through a different lens. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of television stations in the United States, recently forced anchors at its nearly 200 stations to record a promo that rails against “biased and false news” and talks about how members of the media “use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’... this is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”

Deadspin pulled a video together of dozens of them reading from the same script.  It sounds Orwellian. It’s definitely creepy — and it is plain wrong.

Former CBS anchor Dan Rather pointed out this isn’t journalism, it’s propaganda.

“And it is on a slippery slope towards some of history’s most destructive forces. These are the means by which despots wrest power, silence dissent and oppress the masses,” he wrote on Facebook.

That’s not hyperbole. This is an important statement: In my 20-plus year career as a journalist, I have never been asked or ordered to cover a story from a specific angle.

Nobody has ever dictated I take a certain viewpoint, no boss has ever ordered me to talk to a specific source or has killed a story because it uncovered something unsavoury — I have always been free to pursue the most important stories and take them where the facts dictated.

It was true in my first job as a junior reporter at the Woodstock Daily Sentinel-Review and it remains true in my current role as publisher and editor-in-chief with Thomson Reuters. We have strongly worded trust principles, which I must adhere to, including “that the integrity, independence, and freedom from bias of Thomson Reuters shall at all times be fully preserved.”

When corporate decision-makers start dictating what journalists must say, we should all be worried. Do journalists have bias? Undoubtedly. We’re human. We all have political leanings and beliefs.

Does that bias sometimes impact which stories we choose to cover? Undoubtedly.

But it does not mean those stories are covered from a biased perspective. Every reporter I know worth her salt does not take an assignment with an agenda. Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump may not like that organizations such as CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC and the CBC devote so much time to covering the investigation into Trump’s campaign and alleged ties to Russia.

The reporting, though, is accurate. The facts are facts. When journalists get things wrong, as we are apt to do (see human), corrections are made.

On most days, I write about the HR profession and issues affecting employers across Canada. But today, I write in defense of my profession. The onus is on us to get the story right.

The onus on management is not to get in the way, or to force corporate and political agendas down the throats of readers and viewers.

But you, the reader, the viewer and the consumer also have a responsibility. Scrutinize the publisher, look for credible sources and don’t support outlets that show bias against the facts.

We all need to hear the truth, even if we don’t like it, in order to make the best decisions.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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