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Professional and Citizen Journalism in the Age of Fake News

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

With all the talk of “fake news” in the news lately, people are starting to look around for guidance on how to judge news worthiness. Some folks are all to happy to supply it, which has led to some homegrown efforts to make sense of news bias and the wildly tossed around accusation of “fake news”.  Below is a graphic that recently turned up on the internet to classify news, and quasi-news outlets.

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This graphic, which attempts to depict the quality and bias of news media outlets, appeared on Facebook. It may look interesting, but it is really misleading on many levels. The creator of this work is unknown That is enough to dismiss all credibility.  Furthermore,  nothing is known about what criteria the graph maker used or how vigorously those criteria were applied?

The very premise behind this depiction is flawed as well. The editorial leanings of a news outlet is an independent variable. It isn’t directly related to journalistic accuracy. Accuracy is a less subjective measure than political leanings. It is also objectively measurable, unlike the idea of quality, as the term is used on the Y axis. It would be a mistake to assume, for example, that the Wall Street Journal has biased or poor quality reporting just because it has a conservative editorial board. Some conservative bias is evident in its editorials and also in what it covers or considers newsworthy. But the choice of content is a bias that is present in every news outlet. In fact, the choice and treatment of content are the leading criteria for judging a news site as conservative or liberal. This bias, however, does not render the content false or inaccurate. Any two witnesses of any event will give different accounts. This doesn’t mean they are lying or making it up. It is only when obviously important facts or events are intentionally ignored, as in a news blackout, that the omission becomes an egregious bias error.

There are also sites included above, like The Daily Kos, that aren’t strictly news sites. It has a very left-leaning following for sure. Some of the writing on this site comes from professional journalists, or freelance professionals, but a lot of often accurate reporting comes from non-professional journalists as well. Hybrid information websites like The Daily Kos blur the line between professional journalism and citizen journalism. This blurring of the line between the professional and citizen journalist is happening more broadly as well. Amanda Harper’s article, Citizen Journalism vs. Professional Journalism, is a good primer on this topic.

Why does it matter if a journalist is a professional or not?

The theoretical distinction is sharp, even if the practical distinction is sometime blurry.  A profession, any profession, is characterized as a field of employment requiring specialized skills where members abide by a common set of standards and moral principles that are monitored and enforced by peer review and peer pressure. To be a profession there must be an organizational structure to review , refine, promulgate and enforce standards among its members. Being a member of a profession is a broader obligation than being an employee of any particular business or agency. Professionals are obligated to push back against employers or clients who would compromise their professional principles or standards.

So even, if I, as a blogger, hold myself to the same high standards as professional journalists, I am still not a professional journalist. I am not subject to the same journalistic peer review and enforcement procedures.  I am not under editorial supervision and I am not under a news agency’s employment. I am merely a citizen journalist. I am on my own.

So is it OK to call myself a citizen journalist? I think so, providing I am aware that there are serious caveats. The question brings up a very tricky point worth exploring.  Do “civilian journalists” have the same constitutional protections as other working journalists? Specifically, are bloggers protected by their states shield law?

Shield laws allow the public press limited ability to protect the anonymity of its sources. This protection is a constitutional interpretation of what a “free press” implies. Some form of shield law exists in every state with the exception of Wyoming. If there was not respect for the confidentiality of their sources, journalists could be reduced to law enforcement snitches. That would severely hamper their ability to gather the news. In fact, without this protection the press could not serve as a check on government power. It is because of this freedom that the press is sometimes referred to as the fourth estate. Regardless of how you feel about the press, their ability to protect their sources is really the last barricade between the us and government tyranny.

While the courts may show some deference to citizen journalists on a case by case bases, as a class they do not have the same constitutional standing. Specifically, there are currently no shield law to protect a blogger’s sources in the United States.  This is partly because they cannot be held to the same high standards as professional journalist who work in a peers group within a recognized news outlet. The editorial supervision and peer milieu help to challenge and reinforce professional standards.

While I may hold myself to the same high standard as professional journalist, you have no reason to believe me. I am not subject to the same peer review and peer pressures.  And governments, have some reasons to draw a bright line between professional journalists and current events bloggers. It would cause chaos if every person engaged in shady dealings could simply start a blog and claim journalistic privileges as a way to thwart law enforcement. That said, all of us have significant constitutional protections of free speech, free association and unreasonable searches and seizures. So if I respectfully videotape police publicly arresting someone on the street, for example, I can’t be forced to stop videotaping to to destroy the recording.

On the other hand, if you are a whistle blower and want to assure anonymity you had better talk to a professional journalists. You might first want to check on the shield laws in your state as well.

Given the changing nature of society, the internet and the press, it may be time to rethink ways to strengthen protections for citizen journalist who increasingly provide invaluable news reporting to the more traditional news organizations.  As financial constraints continue to shrink the size of news bureaus around the country, citizen journalism have become an increasingly important supplement. Who knows? Maybe in the future citizen journalists might be trained and licensed to establish their integrity.  Until then it’s reader beware.

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by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

It all began with a conversation on Facebook with a conservative friend of mine and ardent Trump supporter. I had posted an article about Erik Prince. He is the founder of Blackwater, a solders for hire firm that is also providing very militarized training programs for our domestic police departments. I was surprised to learn that Betsy DeVos was his sister. The story is about him being a quiet Trump advisor.

My friend immediate responded  with a link to FakeNewsChecker.com that lists Democracy Now as a fake news site. I went to the FakeNewsChecker site for myself and saw that it lists perhaps hundreds of new sites as “fake news” sites. I was suspicious about this site as I am confident that Democracy Now, while progressive in its editorial decisions, present fully accurate, verifiable information.

Also overdue, is a discussion of what makes news “fake” news. In my view it is willfully false information presented as news either for profit or propaganda. It isn’t mistakes in reporting or accurate reporting, but selective reporting. It isn’t obviously intended satire either.

What follows it our Facebook discussion and my findings about the rise of fake, fake news checker sites here and abroad.

ME: WOW!!! This a really scary. I didn’t know

Scahill: Blackwater Founder Erik Prince, the Brother of Betsy DeVos, Is Secretly Advising Trump

The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill has revealed Betsy DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater, has been quietly advising Trump’s…

DEMOCRACYNOW.ORG

Friend:  Don’t believe it: http://www.fakenewschecker.com/fake-news…/democracy-now

Democracy Now

Democracy Now has been added to the growing list of untrustworthy and fake news sources.

FAKENEWSCHECKER.COM

Me: Thank you for sharing this. I. Was unaware until now that there was a fake, fake news reporting site. Democracy now is Progressive in terms of its editorial content but it is one of the most respected news sites on the web for its accuracy in reporting.

Friend : Again, We have to agree to disagree.

ME: your discovery of the Fakenewschecker site and it’s obvious flaws lead me to do some checking of my own.

First you will notice that there is no ownership information or “about us” menu on the Fakenewschecker.com website. This is a sure sign that the owners want to remain anonymous, not a good thing for a site that claims to check facts. There are no links or statements or any other evidence of an attempt at transparency. There is no discussion of what criteria or process the site uses to make hits findings. There are no references to source material used.

Next I learned that fake news checker sites are popping up in other countries lately. There is growing concern around the world that this may be a coordinated attempt to undermine confidence in news gathering. There is some evidence in Europe linking these sites to Russia (See a portion of an article below).

Then I looked the domain up on WhoIs.com. The site was only created on November 17, 2016. This is very recent. The time it would take to thoroughly vet the content of so many “fake news” sights far exceeds the three month window that the website has been active.

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Finally, you will notice that the registrar for “FAKENEWSCHECKER.COM” is 1&1 INTERNET SE.  When you go to this registrar’s website (http://registrar.1and1.info)  you discover that the site is registered in Germany or Austria. Check out the flags below for 1&1 Internet SE. The first is Germany and the second is Austria. When you go to these sites the writing is all German. This is odd in my opinion because the owners are both secret and foreign based. I don’t have the skills or resources to track this suspicions that this is a Russian cyber-op, but I wouldn’t put much faith in the veracity of this site.

whois-newschecker

Below is a clip from an article on the recent appearance of fake, fake news checker sites.

Algorithms Hidden Impact on How We Think

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Algorithms are powerful programs that increasing influence an individual’s world view. Their ubiquitous use may explain our growing political polarity, our growing knowledge gap in current affairs and even why our neighbors seem radicalized. But for impressionable or vulnerable individuals the impacts can be devastating.

Dylann Foot Roof is a case in point. You will recall he was a 21 year old white male who killed nine people in a 2015 massacre at a historical black church in Charleston, South Carolina.  He left behind a manifesto that showed he was  involved with white nationalist websites on the internet for about three years. A recent report by the Southern Policy Law Center details how Google search engine algorithms served a key part in radicalizing this young man who grew up in an otherwise stable, normal home.

dylannfoot

Increasingly, algorithms decide what gets attention, and what is ignored; and even what gets published or censored in our search for knowledge on the internet. It is a powerful force with unforeseen consequences at best. Just as easily they can be used for sinister purposes as well if we aren’t careful.

The following are excerpts from a report presented by the Center for Internet and Human Rights (CIHR) entitled, Ethic of Algorithms. It serves as a good primer on what these powerful programs are and can do.  CIHR promotes academic research about technology and society to inform public and academic debates.

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  • Algorithms are increasingly used  in hiring (and firing), deciding who gets a job and who doesn’t. It is among the most powerful gate-keeping function in society.
  • Algorithms influence how we perceive the world, often without us realizing it. by channeling our attention.
  • Facebook algorithms decide what we see or don’t see. Newsfeed algorithm filters content without our knowing why.
  • Facebook won’t say how the algorithm works, It’s proprietary. Without knowing the exact code, nobody can evaluate how your newsfeed is composed.
  • Complex algorithms are incomprehensible to outsiders but they have values, biases, and potential discrimination built in
  • Without algorithms many applications would be unusable. We need them to cope with the enormous amounts of data. But we must be aware how they work
  • Algorithms are not neutral, but rather they perpetuate the prejudices of their creators.

They must be known to the user

“Since algorithms make increasingly important decisions about our lives, users need to be informed about them. Knowledge about automated decision-making in everyday services is still very limited among consumers. Raising awareness should be at the heart of the debate about ethics of algorithms.”

We are already at the point where regulating computer algorithms is essential for our collective well being, yet most people aren’t even aware the threats and problems they pose. I know I wasn’t until very recently. I hope this brief blog posting and the links above encourage others to explore this topic further.

Mortal Night

mortalnight