Why Fact-Checked Journalism Matters — Interview with Newsman Tim Ortman
Tim Ortman, a former cameraman and producer for every major U.S. television news network and the Foreign Press Corps, believes that too many people, especially younger people, are making the mistake of relying on social media as trustworthy news outlets. His new book, Newsreal: A View Through the Lens When…, is filled with stories about his experiences as a newsman in the years when there were just four television networks, with enormous budgets and loyal viewers. And he addresses the impact of cable news and social media on the news, on us, and on our country. In an interview, he discussed fake news, social media, and confirmation bias, and the vital importance of objective, demanding news outlets in a democracy.
Is there more fake news now or are we just more aware of it? Or more able to make it go viral so that it reaches more people?
During the time period Newsreal, A View Through the Lens, When…takes place, there were only four major American news networks and the reporting was factual and straight-forward. Today, what is referred to as fake news is flourishing online. Social media sites often regurgitate news reports from legitimate news sources (IE: NBC News, NY Times, etc.). These reports are then redistributed, often times anonymously, by a mysterious network of trolls, bots and algorithms. With no journalistic oversight, the initial reports become so layered with opinion and conjecture that it no longer resembles the original real news story. This sort of delivery method allows for the viral growth, and subsequent distortion of stories that may have started as genuine news by a real news source but morph into little more than misrepresentation and opinion.
What are some of the indicators of a reliable news source?
Ownership. If a news organization assigns its own reporter or correspondent to write or broadcast a news report, both the company’s and reporter’s name are ‘on the line’, responsible for the validity and accuracy of that report. This ensures that a thorough vetting process is run where facts are checked and sources confirmed.
The President and many other public figures accuse the mainstream media of bias. Is that fair? What is the best way to evaluate those claims?
Donald Trump is the President of the United States (POTUS). It is the job of the news media to report on the President. Almost every President in our nation’s history has taken issue with some story, report or coverage they received. It is inherent with the job. And yet, almost every President in our nations history has recognized a strong and uncensored press is a cornerstone of our Democracy. Two term President George W. Bush (43) was the recipient of much unflattering yet honest coverage while in office. After leaving office, he said, “Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive. And, it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power.”
Is there a risk that relying on media sources, even reliable ones, can perpetuate echo chambers and confirmation bias?
We are fortunate to live in a free society that offers us a plethora of reliable media sources. I’ve traveled to numerous countries devoid of that privilege. With so many sources operating in a 24-hour news cycle, echo chambers are inevitable. As news consumers, it’s best to aim for a balanced diet of news and information as opposed to gorging on one site, paper or channel. This can help reduce the craving for conformation bias.
What is fake news, and is that term mis-applied?
I mentioned online fake news previously. However, my intentional misspelling of Newsreal was intended to address the all-too-popular use of the term “fake news” as it’s been applied to print and broadcast journalism. I don’t buy it. It is intended as a smokescreen; a diversionary tactic to distract the viewer/readers attention away from a story that’s not flattering or complementary, but at its core, factual and correct. By applying the label “fake news,” the aim is to lessen or totally dismiss a truthful report. Truth can be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but that doesn’t make it false or fake. As news consumers, we have become too quick to believe in this artificial labeling.
How has “liking” and “retweeting” affected the dissemination of news stories, both legitimate and fake?
I can only speak to legitimate news and the business of fact-based news should never be a popularity contest. Likes and dislikes have absolutely no place in the delivery of unbiased journalism, and for good reason. Reporters should be free to report the truth regardless of how it will be received. The search for truth can sometimes be a circuitous path. What may seem like an unpopular story initially can develop a ground-swell of support once all the facts are on display. Real news should not be packaged to appear more appealing or ‘liked’.
What is the biggest threat to independent news media?
The external criticism of the news media has little affect of true journalists. They louder the outcry, the more emboldened and dedicated the journalistic community becomes. The real threat comes from within when corporate policy dictates what is and what isn’t news. We saw this with the Sinclair Broadcasting Group scandal where the media giant, who owns 173 television stations, forced anchormen and women systemwide to read an on-air script prepared by Sinclair management. This blurred the line between the company’s beliefs and independent reporting.
Why do you call your time in the business the golden era? What did we have then that we no longer have?
The big-three networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) made their profits from their prime-time line-up with shows like Cheers and Seinfeld. Profitability wasn’t the guiding principle within the news divisions where news coverage was viewed as a civic obligation or “higher calling.” Anchormen were more trusted than Presidents and audience ratings were twice what they are today.
Additionally, each network had news bureaus in every major city and capital around the world. This made for very powerful yet very agile global news operations that could mobilize to cover news wherever and whenever it happened.
Where will our children get their news when they become adults?
Tough question as I have no idea what the news landscape will look like in the future. I only hope that as the next generation turns off the TV and turns on other devices, the content being viewed includes a healthy dose of news and information from around the world. We are the most powerful nation on earth. We owe it to ourselves, and to those Americans who came before us to be the most well-informed nation was well as the most powerful.