North Texas Daily

Journalists are ill-prepared for the post-truth era

Journalists are ill-prepared for the post-truth era

Journalists are ill-prepared for the post-truth era
November 12
12:00 2021

The day before the Virginia gubernatorial elections, political operatives sought to taint the opposition as supported by the Charlottesville rioters. It almost worked, but journalists fell for the bait. The picture was shared on social media without due diligence. The local NBC affiliate published an article including reactions from both candidates.

Journalism education is doing a disservice to the profession and the public if this is the end product. In school teachers talk about getting three sources for a public interest story, but the sources must be of genuine quality for this to work. 

This stunt is a good example of how sources matter in a story. There is no mention of reporter Madison McNamee attempting to talk to the people holding tiki torches. If she did approach them but they declined to offer a comment, there should be a mention of the interaction in the story. Instead, McNamee is facing accusations on social media of spreading misinformation, with some calling for her to be fired.

Were it not for political action committee Lincoln Project taking credit for the stunt, people who rely on the local news may have been deceived. Why did McNamee not take proactive steps to provide context to the identity of the people in the stunt?

In the captured photo, one of the people involved in the stunt is Black. What white supremacist organization is that diverse? Journalists could learn from live sports broadcasts, where streakers, chanters or people spreading political messaging are taken off-air immediately. People who do these stunts thrive off of media coverage.

For the Lincoln Project, this stunt was about them controlling the narrative, the link between neo-Nazis at Charlottesville four years ago, the Republican party’s embrace of those values and then-candidate Glenn Youngkin. After their statement was published, they showed their control over the narrative. Their statement was published in full as an edit to the aforementioned NBC article. The story was over as far as the journalist was concerned. 

As misinformation and political astroturfing become more prevalent in the current media landscape, aspiring journalists need to think critically and do their research instead of relying on people with their own motives to tell the story. 

This process, known as Churnalism, is not a new phenomenon. In some ways, this process is actively encouraged by journalism schools. Future journalists are encouraged to talk to media-friendly experts, politicians and activists when writing political news. Because journalists are usually not experts in the subjects they write, they might rely on someone else to say it. Journalists cannot authoritatively write on their own. 

With all the available resources available on the internet today, why not have journalists fact-check what sources tell them? Proposed bills are posted in full on the internet and previous statements by political operatives are archived on video or social media. 

Once the reactions from the event settled, Lauren Windsor, a Democratic operative for the Lincoln Project, was revealed to be behind the Virginia stunt, in an article for The Intercept.

Should a reporter come up, the plan was to be transparent as possible, disclosing their work with the Lincoln Project, according to Windsor. Yet her actions proved otherwise, tweeting a reaction to her stunt making the event seem organic instead of the paid operation it was. It never occurred to her their actions could be seen for anything other than the stunt it was.

Now political operatives have a playbook for playing the news media like a fiddle. Unfortunately, we can’t expect political players to play fair. Journalists needs to play hardball with their sources and fact-check at every step of the way. 

Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles

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Chris Sotelo

Chris Sotelo

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