Editor’s note: The following guest editorial was written by Al Cross, in recognition of National Newspaper Week and observed October 2-8. Cross is a professor of journalism and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky. He was a weekly newspaper editor and manager, political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal and president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
I love social media. They keep me in touch with dozens of friends, whom I might otherwise have contact with just every few years, or every few decades. They let me share articles that I think bring greater understanding of a subject, usually with a comment of my own, and enjoy similar sharing by others. They let me share my own writing, reaching a wider audience than I did when I worked for newspapers, and be part of national, even international, conversations.
I hate social media. They have become the default sources of information for most Americans, and major sources of misinformation—even disinformation—that polarizes the country and drives us into media echo chambers. They have added to the confusion between fact and opinion, and to our natural desire for information that confirms what we believe, rather than information that may challenge those beliefs. They have led Americans to spend more time online in virtual communities instead of the geographic communities where we live, pay taxes and elect local leaders.
My love-hate relationship with social media stems mainly from the fact that I am a journalist who believes that freedom of information is essential to our democratic republic, and who has done most of my journalism for newspapers which are the main fact-finders in our society.
Newspapers are finding it more difficult to perform that essential function, mainly because much of their audience and more of their advertisers now prefer social media. Newspapers have as many readers as they ever did, but the audience is mainly online, and reached through social media posts that bring them no income. There’s a bill in Congress to address that, called the Journalism Preservation Act, but what news media also need is more citizens who appreciate and support their work. Newspapers are not only the main fact-finders for citizens; they are institutions that speak truth to power and hold it accountable. That’s why our founders put the First Amendment into the Constitution, to guarantee freedom of speech, press, petition, assembly and religion.
Freedom of the press demands certain responsibilities of those who exercise it. Too many citizens don’t realize that journalists have a set of generally agreed-upon ethics, and that journalism is a collective enterprise, with editors and other colleagues who help each other deliver a fair report.
My favorite description of how journalism is supposed to be practiced is in The Elements of Journalism, a book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. They list 10 elements; here are the first five , which are the most fundamental:
1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
The element I quote most often these days is No. 3, about the discipline of verification. It means that we tell readers how we know something, or we attribute it to someone. Social media have no discipline and no verification. And they’re mainly about opinion, not facts. Journalism, especially in newspapers, is mainly about facts, not opinion. Opinions are the heartbeat of a democracy, but they should be based on facts. And for the facts, we need newspapers.