An outrageous hoax by a Lexington, Ky., radio station — which would want me to mention its name and/or frequency — offers an important lesson for those of us in journalism and the public we try to serve.
The morning-drive personalities falsely reported that it had become illegal to smoke in a vehicle in the major city in the Bluegrass, where a new ban on indoor smoking in public places remains controversial.
Of course, the yahoos who perpetrated this fraud and got suspended for it are most assuredly not journalists. But to a wide swath of their audience, they were masquerading as journalists, because it has become increasingly difficult to tell journalists from entertainers.
That is a function of today’s fragmented media environment, in which all media outlets are grasping for every bit of audience and readership. Broadcast outlets, especially cable channels, have exacerbated this trend because they prefer the cheap alternative of dueling opinions rather than the expensive business of gathering facts.
One of the great problems facing the news media today is that the market for opinion is increasing, and the market for facts is decreasing. A vigorous exchange of opinions is essential to democracy, but those exchanges don’t get us anywhere if we can’t find some agreement on the facts.
So, the hoax offers a teachable moment — a chance to remind readers, viewers and listeners that not all information is journalism.
How do you tell the difference? Consider the background and the behavior of who’s putting out the information. If it’s a radio station, do they have news reporters who go out and cover stories, or do they just read headlines and snippets from wire-service stories?
Most talk-show hosts I hear while scanning the radio dial are not journalists, but entertainers. However, there are some who try to exercise news judgment, gathering facts and rendering them in a fair way. They have guests, ask intelligent questions and give a fair hearing to all.
When it comes to broadcast stations that have real news departments, and to newspapers that employ professional journalists, there are still questions to ask: Do they make an effort to be fair? Are they accurate? Are they reasonably thorough? That’s what real journalists try to do, so those are the ones I trust.
I especially trust those who subscribe to the SPJ Code of Ethics, which says journalists have four main responsibilities: Seek the truth and report it; minimize harm to your subjects and sources; act independently; and be accountable.
In a newspaper column I wrote after the radio hoax, I told readers, “If your information comes from people who follow these rules, I think you can trust it.”
The lesson for those of us in journalism is that we need to make clear what journalism is and is not, and that those of us dedicated to the public interest try to observe some basic rules to preserve the public’s trust.
Perhaps the lesson for those of us in SPJ is that we should talk about the code at every opportunity, not only to advance its principles but also to highlight the Society’s role in safeguarding them.
Al Cross is interim director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues based at the University of Kentucky. A former political writer and columnist for The Courier-Journal, he lives in Frankfort.