Ok, look, People of the Internets, we need to talk.
Over the years, and more frequently recently, I have been accused of being a “bad journalist,” and – on a few notable occasions – had my “journalist integrity” called into question.
Guys. People. I am not a journalist. I’m a blogger. This is a personal blog. I bitch about Arrow and fangirl over The Flash and write long, detailed eddas about Batman. I am so, so not a journalist, and I have to tell you, I’m super worried about the people who stumble across my blog who don’t seem to realize that.
Now, a few years ago I enrolled in the local community college for a journalism degree, and until about a year, year-and-a-half ago my bios on various social media sites mentioned that I was a journalism student, so I’ll cut folks a little slack for the confusion. But since all of the “bad journalist” comments happened after people read something on my personal blog, I’m not going to cut them much slack. I feel like there is a very clear visual difference between my blog and the New York Times, so I’m pretty sure you should be able to tell right away that you ain’t reading the next Pulitzer winner when you visit my site.
Most of the snarky little “so much for your journalistic integrity” comments I’ve received over the years were obviously just trolling asshats who spotted the word “journalism” in my bio and didn’t read anymore than that, and those can be safely ignored. But there have been several people who, as far as I can tell, actually thought I was committing journalism on this website.
To those people I say, “Dude. No. Holy crap, no. Please, for the love of cute little dogs, go take a media literacy class. You are deeply confused.”
The reason I bring this up isn’t because I’m offended or upset by comments like that, but because I think it’s pointing to a larger problem in society. If people are genuinely mistaking me, on this website, for a journalist writing actual news, then is it any wonder that “fake news” and the complete inability to distinguish it from real news has become a problem?
If the idea of what constitutes “the news” or a “news website” has been so muddied that I’m being mistaken for one, then folks, we’re in some trouble.
I was initially going to write about how one tells real news from fake news, real news sites from fake news sites, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that those categories have gotten really blurred. How do you tell real news and real journalists apart from idgits with a blog like me?
You can’t use the topics a site covers. I said a few paragraphs ago that I write about Arrow and The Flash and Batman, but shoot, you can read all that in the New York Times, too. That’s what the entertainment section is for. And in between all the stuff about Batman, I write about current events and politics, which you can also find in the Times.
You can’t use the tone of my writing, because a lot of respected news organizations are now using the same conversational writing styles I use and mixing analysis and opinion in with their news, just like I do.
Reputation used to be a good qualifier, but with Trump and his fans and minions attacking reputable news organizations and pointing out propaganda rags like Breitbart and Lifezette as though they’re worthy of being called “news,” you can’t really count on that anymore, either.
So how do you tell what’s “news”?
I know for me it’s largely a matter of experience and reputation, tempered with a healthy dose of brand skepticism. I know that if I’m reading a story in any of my usual trusted sources – NPR, the New York Times, Propublica, the Washington Post, AP, Reuters, etc – I can safely assume that the story is legit and trust that if the reporter screwed something up, they’ll correct it. I know to fact check and find other sources for a story if I read it outside of my usual venues. And I know that if I’m reading something in a blog – like mine – that I can judge their accuracy by the sources they used, and if they don’t link to sources, I can discount it completely until further notice.
But none of that works if a person has been convinced that, for example, Breitbart is reputable and Snopes can’t be trusted. (I have spoken to actual people who didn’t believe Snopes.)
Here’s another problem I’ve run into: People can’t tell opinion from fact. A lot of “new media” organizations will mix opinion and fact into a story, and I’ve read enough of both to know the difference when I’m reading, say, Vox. But a lot of people have not. To add another layer to that, lots of folks have a problem distinguishing between opinion and analysis.
And that’s not even to mention the fact that most people just don’t read well. When I was in journalism classes, they taught us to write at an 8th grade reading level, because the majority of the reading audience reads at an 8th grade level. That goes a considerable distance towards explaining how I can write “journalism student” in my bio and end up with Twitter eggs complaining about my “journalistic integrity” after reading a post on my blog about video games.
I don’t know, guys, but I do know this is a problem we’re going to need to solve. I think we need to start teaching media literacy right from kindergarten. Otherwise things are just going to continue on this downward spiral of understanding, and I actually will be writing the news.
Featured image: Newspapers in black and white, by Jon S.