Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Real journalism requires time and truth

The News Tribune’s Alexis Krell shoots video while reporting on the homecoming of Jacoby Miles, a Sumner teen gymnast paralyzed in 2012. The processes she uses stand in stark contrast to those of fake news reporters
The News Tribune’s Alexis Krell shoots video while reporting on the homecoming of Jacoby Miles, a Sumner teen gymnast paralyzed in 2012. The processes she uses stand in stark contrast to those of fake news reporters Staff file, 2012

It’s a routine followup to a grim Halloween night story that News Tribune courts reporter Alexis Krell put together for today’s local news section.

“Boy’s family sues driver,” the headline says.

Krell and her editors spent several hours last week on the story, pretty routine for a simple work of daily journalism.

For this story, Krell downloaded the court filing, which she found Tuesday during her daily review of the Pierce County Superior Court calendar. She then researched charging documents against the driver and our original story on the incident.

Because she knows people will wonder how the little boy is doing, she contacted the family’s attorney. Because the accused man deserves a chance to answer to the suit, she contacted his attorney.

Krell then began writing, providing the facts needed to understand the situation without overstepping into sensationalism.

Her editor read it for accuracy, good grammar and completeness. A copy editor repeated the process and wrote the headline.

Reboot, rinse, repeat. We publish dozens of stories a week following that tried and true — albeit labor-intensive and expensive — process. Staffers must adhere to journalistic standards and ethics or risk losing their jobs.

You should expect that of a piece of professional journalism, whether you read it in the newspaper or online.

But that amount of effort is increasingly rare at a time when online news scammers spend 10 minutes writing a fake headline over a made-up news story with the sole mission of getting thousands to click on it so the writers can cash in.

Contrast our process with one described in a recent Washington Post story about the wave of hucksters flooding the internet with fake news:

Fewer than 2,000 readers are on his website when Paris Wade, 26, awakens from a nap, reaches for his laptop and thinks he needs to, as he puts it, “feed” his audience. “Man, no one is covering this TPP thing,” he says after seeing an article suggesting that President Obama wants to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership before he leaves office. Wade, a modern-day digital opportunist, sees an opportunity. He begins typing a story.

“CAN’T TRUST OBAMA,” he writes as the headline, then pauses. His audience hates Obama and loves President-elect Donald Trump, and he wants to capture that disgust and cast it as a drama between good and evil. He resumes typing: “Look At Sick Thing He Just Did To STAB Trump In The Back. ...”

Ten minutes and nearly 200 words later, he is done with a story that is all opinion, innuendo and rumor. He types at the bottom, “Comment ‘DOWN WITH THE GLOBALISTS!’ below if you love this country,” publishes the story to his website, LibertyWritersNews.com, and then pulls up the Facebook page he uses to promote the site, which in six months has collected 805,000 followers and brought in tens of millions of page views. “WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN!” he writes, posting the article. “#SHARE this 1 million times, patriots!” Then he looks at a nearby monitor that shows the site’s analytics and watches as the readers pour in.

“Down with the globalists,” writes a woman in Cape Girardeau, Mo., one of 3,192 people now on the website, 1,244 of whom are reading the story he just posted.

Each click garners cash for Wade and his business partner, both college-educated, unemployed restaurant workers. The money comes from advertisers searching for the eyeballs served up by LibertyWritersNews. The “reporters” make tens of thousands of dollars a month, all from the couch of their California rental. They know they’re lying, and they don’t care.

For those of us in the truth business, the most maddening quote came from a woman who frequents Wade’s page: “YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I TRUST TO REPORT THE TRUTH.”

Fake news sites have taken off in recent months, particularly on Facebook. Many sites targeted would-be voters whose partisan passions prompted them to click on whichever outrageous headlines appeared to reinforce their own opinions. And maybe accept those headlines as true.

A recent report by Buzzfeed News said that in the last three months of the presidential campaign, the 20 top-performing fake news stories posted on Facebook got more clicks and shares than the 20 top real stories from major news outlets.

President Barack Obama recently spoke to the troubling trend, saying, “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not, particularly on social media ... then we have problems.” Taken to an extreme, he said, this intended misinformation could threaten our democracy.

Given all this, a friend recently asked me how to find online news sources she could trust. I offered a few tips:

▪ If you read an outrageous headline, like the one about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, check to see if any longstanding journalism sites also have it. If it’s true, lots of news outlets will be reporting the story. If it’s a one-hit wonder, consider it suspect and don’t click on it.

▪ Pay attention to who is publishing the story. Have you ever heard of this news site? If not, check it out. Does it have a Contact Us page that tells you who’s running the outfit? Is there a phone number you can call to find out more? Could you walk in the door and talk to a real person? Any legitimate business would have those things.

▪ If you click, read the story before you share it. Is there a story at all or just a headline that clicks in to advertisements? If there is a story, what sources are cited, if any? Do they make sense to you? Sharing a fake news story gives a huckster another opportunity to make money while misinforming your friends.

▪ Run the story by a nonpartisan, nonprofit fact-checking site such as Politifact.com, Factcheck.org or Snopes.com. They are working overtime to review suspect stories.

▪ Over time, keep track of which stories hold up and which ones don’t. Build your own list of sources you trust and those you don’t.

Fake journalists are no different from the scammers who call your home and promise you a fortune if you’ll share your bank account password.

The solution for the latter is to hang up as quickly as possible.

The solution for killing the fake news movement is to resist clicking on their garbage. That’s the only hope that they’ll dry up and blow away.

Demand more of all news outlets. At the very least, that we tell the truth.

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