Fake News and the Free Press

Alayne Trinko, Featured Author

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The Boston Globe called upon newspapers across the nation last month to participate in a “coordinated response” to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against the press. More than 300 newspapers participated, highlighting the shared belief of the free press’ importance.

The next generation of reporters is in the wings, but student and aspiring journalists are entering the field caught in the crossfire, clutching the pens they fear may not be as mighty as the sword after all.

Phrases like “fake news” and “liars” are mere scratches on the surface of blows that journalists must endure. The real threat journalists face is what may happen if the president’s language inspires others to believe the press is “the enemy of people.”

Fake news does exist, but it isn’t as common as the president is leading us to believe. Stephen Glass, who previously worked for The New Republic, was exposed as a serial fabricator in the 1990s. Jayson Blair resigned from The New York Times in 2003 when the paper discovered he had plagiarized and fabricated his work. NBC’s Brian Williams was suspended for six months for inaccurately retelling a story he covered in 2015.

These are only a few examples that prove even the most prestigious news organizations are fallible, but the journalists who are caught reporting falsehoods have their reputations permanently soiled and are deemed a disgrace to good reporters everywhere.

Reporting the news is no easy task, and the challenges are only magnified when one is deemed untrustworthy from the start. The rhetoric aimed at fake news writers ultimately hurts honest reporters and their credibility. Without our nation’s journalists, our country could have missed some of the most important events in our history:

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post exposed the Watergate scandal in 1972 that revealed the attempted cover-up of the Democratic National Committee break-in by President Nixon.

Bill Biggart sacrificed his life to provide the public coverage of the terror of Sept. 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers fell.

Spotlight, the investigative reporting section of The Boston Globe, uncovered the truth about dozens of Catholic Church priests sexually assaulting and harassing minors in 2002, a story that led more victims to come forward.

Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans of the Indianapolis Star investigated USA Gymnastics’ failure to report sexual assault cases that proved Larry Nassar guilty in 2017.

This is not an exhaustive list of pivotal moments in American history unearthed by reporters. These are men and women who were viewed as heroes for their work and devotion to providing the truth. Reporters were, at one point in time, held to the highest standards of heroism.

But the tables have turned. Superman and Spiderman were reporters when they weren’t fighting crime, but the job once fit for a superhero is now full of super villains in the public’s eyes.

What must be remembered as the president threatens the credibility, reputation and public perception of the press is that journalists across the country provide a service that cannot be replaced. Reporters are not only tasked with meeting the never-ending need for accurate and reliable information but are constitutionally protected from most forms of government censorship that would otherwise keep the public in the dark.

On the top floor of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., (the interactive museum devoted to educating and promoting the news in all of its forms) there is a stone wall engraved with the following declaration:

“The free press is a cornerstone of democracy. People have a need to know. Journalists have a right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the duty to be fair. News is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A free press, at its best, reveals the truth.”

A free press is a right endowed to all Americans, but not all Americans realize that their right may be jeopardy. When the public blindly denies the integrity of the press, everyone loses.

The free press is being threatened. The nation’s access to information is being threatened. What makes us American is being threatened.

Are we going to be bystanders and let our friends, family, neighbors and national leadership undermine our free press? Or are we going to protect and defend our freedoms and what makes us American?

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Fake News and the Free Press