If you’re constantly wondering if you can believe anything you hear or read these days, constantly worried that you’ll be taken in by some tidbit of fake news (however we’re defining that at the moment), and overwhelmed and exhausted by the prospect of sorting out the real information from the bias, you are not alone. And I would argue that the history and rhetorical traditions of the mainstream media are partly to blame. There’s a lot that’s very, very good about good journalistic practices, but they could do better, and they could do it relatively easily in the age of online news.
First, what are they doing right? Becoming a journalist means becoming trained in ethical standards and methods fact-checking that involve getting independent corroboration from multiple sources before publishing. Another thing that is more invisible but probably more powerful is the publication process itself, which requires that stories get submitted for review by fact-checkers and editors prior to publication. There are multiple points built into the process for people to decide not to publish a story until it has more reliable sources, more or better corroborating sources, etc. This doesn’t mean that sources are unbiased, but it should at least mean that they aren’t deliberately publishing falsehood. And of course, mistakes can happen in journalism just as in the peer reviewed scholarly publishing world, but the system has been set up over journalism’s long history to minimize those chances, there are consequences for messing with the system, and there are multiple levels of staff to do all the work that the system requires.
But the long social and rhetorical history of the news can muddy the waters, too. Printing newspapers back in the day meant strict character and word limits and painstaking type-setting, none of which were conducive to any desire to add full citations to articles like we’re used to in academia. And besides, they were The News — sourced and fact-checked and vetted prior to printing — so readers shouldn’t need full cumbersome citations in order to believe what was being presented.
The problem is that at least for the online version of the news, linking to the study or bill or report when you mention it is trivial. If the New York Times can have an animated gif as its main image for a front page story of the online edition, they can certainly hyperlink these references in the online edition as well. Just as an example I spent over an hour trying to track down “an October government report analyzing White House travel” referenced in a Washington Post article yesterday (and I think I found it, but good grief do you know how many reports from how many parts of “the government” were presented or published in October, and in how many places the different reports could be published??). In fact, my whole recent series of posts has resulted from me asking the very basic question “what publication are they referencing in that article?” or “where did they get that number?” and then essentially providing the footnotes for the news stories I read.
Not only would links or citations help readers consume the news more critically just in general, but they would also help us distinguish between solid journalism and those publications that really are fake news in the original sense of the term. I think it’s long past time for newspapers to do themselves and their readers the courtesy of a citation when they’re referring to published documents.