Staff Columnist

Journalists aren't fake news, you are

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The first time I was called fake news was on a reporting trip to Gladbrook. Houses in the town were burning and I wanted to know why. At the time, I was a freelance reporter working with the Village Voice, which is based out of New York. They were interested in the story, and so, I went to a place I had been many times before to write about a town full of matchsticks and burning houses. The story was one of survival, of aging infrastructure and community surviving.

When the story came out, my inbox was full of letters accusing me of being a New York City coastal elite. “You’ve never been here!” said one. Another person, one I had interviewed, said she’d talked to a journalist, but not to me. I dealt with the responses for weeks, patiently showing my reporting notes and recordings, it didn’t do any good. “Typical fake news,” someone wrote on Facebook. This was 2016, before the election, before the swirling vortex of facts and spin plunged us into this media moment.

America is in a media crisis. False stories are reported as true and truths are dismissed as fiction. What a person believes about what they read has more to do with the worldview they want to prop up rather than the reality of the world we live in.

According to a Pew Center study, fifty percent of Americans believe fake news to be a crucial issue. But they believe journalists should be the ones to solve the problem. Journalists do not create fake news. At this point in America, it’s harder to become a journalist than own a gun. There is college to contend with and getting hired for any one of the quickly disappearing jobs. Journalists can get it wrong, but that’s less a matter of fake news and more a matter of newspapers have cut fact-checking departments.

Fake news is created by content creators looking to make quick money. They set up websites that look real, but write made-up content so you will click on it and share it. And you do. Fake news is also spread through message boards where conspiracy theories thrive. Then, these conspiracies are written up on blogs, spread on Facebook until American’s believe in Pizzagate, that Seth Rich was murdered, or the Obama birther conspiracy. These lies feed our resentment and rage until it manifested itself in the White House, all orange and spitting lies.

It’s a culture that screams fake at the truth. I’ve worked at the Gazette for two weeks and already I’ve gotten emails threatening to hound me. Last spring I received a barrage of hate from a white supremacist group. The next question you want to ask is “why did you get hate?” The answer: I did my job.

Last year, five Maryland journalists were shot and killed. CNN and Time Warner received bomb threats and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi government. The president calls journalists “the enemy of the people.” And based on my email, many of you agree.

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Journalists aren’t the only ones who can fix fake news. That happens with businesses and institutions and people supporting independent media. It requires a culture that believes in media, rather than attacking it. The Gazette is one of the last remaining independent newspapers in Iowa and is clinging on for now. Iowa Watch, an institution dedicated to investigative journalism in the state requires vital support. These are the solutions. If you want to end the scourge of fake news, stop participating in it.

l Comments: (319) 398-8513; lyz.lenz@thegazette.com

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