In the battle against fake news, is it finally time to certify journalists?
It’s a divisive question, but one that is becoming more interesting by the day. As a media and technology commentator, I started tracking sentiment on this topic among journalism professors and practitioners nearly a decade ago.
Back then, “fake news” wasn’t a catchphrase. But “citizen journalism” was, with the rise of popular, online-only journalists and their stories of varying accuracy propelled by then-young social media.
So in April 2009 I penned a thought experiment: Would voluntary journalist certification be useful as a type of trusted seal for readers and viewers, similar to voluntary credentials in other industries?
As I put it then:
Just because the Web enables citizen journalism doesn’t mean anyone with a Blogger account and the ability to type is actually a journalist, no matter what he or she claims. “Citizen journalism” means citizens can be journalists and reach a potential audience without the intermediary of owning their own printing press or television tower.
But what’s missing is credibility and, in many cases, trust. The old infrastructure limitations to being a well-read or well-viewed journalist also had an implicit screening effect: If you were hired and worked your way up to a larger paper or TV station, you were effectively trained in (or at least had a fighting chance of) being good at journalism by bosses and colleagues who acted as mentors. Effectively, you were “certified” by the process.
Today, blogs and tweets aren’t consistently trustworthy. And there is no comparable screening process to fall back upon. A high Google page rank doesn’t mean it’s accurate, only popular.
I suggested — very carefully, because First Amendment — a purely voluntary credentialing program and test for the new breed of free-agent journalist.
Not licensing by federal or state governments, but optional certification from an independent body that an individual has at least an understanding of the principles of what it takes to be a good journalist: fairness, verifying claims with multiple sources, and all the basics that have evolved since the first daily newspaper was published in the U.S. in 1784.
After all, I reasoned, many consumers already seek out Certified Financial Planners instead of a generic “financial planner,” or a National Certified Counselor instead of anyone hanging up a “counselor” shingle. Perhaps news consumers would appreciate a similar optional accreditation for those doing reporting, especially those on unfamiliar news sites or social media. It could be a credential perhaps overseen by a journalism organization or group of organizations.
The commentary appeared. Time passed. Trump happened.
Fake news was suddenly a thing, whether it was actual misinformation and fabrication, or just inconveniently true “fake” news.
So I dusted off pixels and sent the old essay around to current-day practitioners to see if the idea was of good, bad, or barn-door-closed-after-the-horse-left quality.
Turned out between that essay and today, some certification efforts have been tried for news organizations as well as individuals.
Brian Glanz is now director of Cascade Public Media’s Hive Media Lab. In 2010, Glanz said he did some work to support an initiative called the TAO of Journalism, rolled out by the Washington News Council. TAO (which stood for Transparency, Accountability, and Openness) was a self-certification. A blogger or news organization agreed to adhere to a set of stated principles and practices, not unlike the then-current BBBOnLine or TRUSTe seals for online business and e-commerce.
Funded in part by a $100,000 Gates Foundation challenge grant, the TAO program generated a lot of early interest. “It enjoyed industry buzz and some adoption, but there was not enough awareness to sustain the effort or have the desired effect,” Glanz said. The Washington News Council itself shut down in 2014.
Part of the difficulty in any kind of certification is the notoriously independent nature of many attracted to the craft of journalism. Another is that even professional journalism organizations may be hard-pressed to agree on specifics of any credential, or be able to manage it when their membership ranks are in decline due to deep staffing cuts within traditional media organizations.
“Professional journalists do, at nearly unanimous numbers, adhere to the professional standards of organizations like SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists ) and NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) and RTDNA (Radio Television Digital News Association), whether they have a certification that says so or not,” said Caley Cook, journalism lecturer at the University of Washington and an investigative and feature reporter. “I don’t think it hurts, really, to get a journalistic certification, but I don’t think an average news consumer is going to take one look at that and say, well I trust you now.”
Those doubts are shared by SPJ Washington board member Daniel Person. “When you look at the sites/pages/accounts that are disseminating false information, there are all sorts of red flags suggesting that it’s not a reputable source: goofy URLs, lack of citation, bad grammar, etc.,” Person, a former Seattle Weekly editor, said. “Yet people seem willing to blow past these caution signs so long as the ‘news’ they are reporting confirms their worldview … If people are willing to share a story from SpicyAmericaNewz.Ru, what’s to say they’ll check the reporter’s credentials beforehand?”
While there may be a place for some kind of voluntary certification for journalism newbies or freelancers who don’t belong to a professional media organization, Cook thinks a better solution lies beyond the outflow end of the story pipe.
“When normal people truly don’t consider the source of their information or how it was gathered, we have a greater problem than certification of journalists could solve,” Cook said.
Instead, she points to the oft-cited need for better media literacy, “what makes information reliable, how to question the source of information, media industrialization and consolidation, etc,” she said “I think you’d find this would have a far greater impact on the perception of ‘fake news’ than if you put that onus on the journalists.”
Effectively, people may not fully understand that they’re now not simply consuming what comes out of the news pipe. They’re directing the pipe’s spew as well. It’s what Glanz called, “the public’s new role in distribution” through social media and other technologies. “Now only one in ten Americans don’t use the internet; ten years ago it was still two to three times that,” he said.
It’s also why one of Hive Media Lab’s initiatives is the nascent We the People PSA Project, bringing together news organizations to share media literacy tips through public service announcements to try and promote more intelligent distribution.
There is also a potential dark side. Another professional journalist mentioned that, in the current climate of news media distrust, lawyers might use the lack of even an optional credential as a kind of “proof” in a defamation or other lawsuit that the reporter didn’t know what he or she was doing.
While none of the others dismissed my decade-old voluntary certification idea out of hand (perhaps out of politeness), it did highlight how multi-faceted the problem of truly fake news is. It’s not just the credentials of its creators, but the tech-enabled ease of its spread, and the — yes, I’ll say it — uncritical gullibility of all of us as its consumers.
So is the solution better policing of existing professional organization standards? Prominent disclosure of media outlet ownership? Insight into sources of information? Visible flagging of errors and modifications made during distribution? Stronger skepticism before sharing?
If this were a multiple choice certification test, the correct answer may be “all of the above.” Or voluntary certification of individuals and media organizations may be a bad idea whose time is just ahead.