In many cases, media outlets serve as little more than megaphones for official sources and government narratives.
Many chalk it up to some kind of conspiracy, but I think it has more to do with the way media outlets “do” journalism, and the incestuous relationships this breeds between government officials and reporters.
Forbes did a nice job chronicling the evolution of a recent fake news story in the Washington Post asserting the Russians hacked the power grid in Vermont. WaPo walked backed its story, but not before other media outlets picked up on it and echoed the accusations against Russia. Buried in its analysis, I found an observation that drills down to a major problem in journalism today – the overreliance on “official sources.”
It also tells us that the Post ran its story based solely and exclusively on the word of US Government sources that it placed absolute trust in. That the Post would run an entire story based exclusively on the word of its US Government sources and without any other external fact checking (such as contacting the two utilities), offers a fascinating glimpse into just how much blind trust American newspapers place in Government sources, to repeat their claims verbatim without the slightest bit of vetting or confirmation.”
I worked in local news for five years, and I saw this same phenomenon play out on a daily basis. Our station focused on “breaking news.” In other words, robberies, wrecks and fires. We reported the vast majority of these stories based almost exclusively on police reports, police statements, court documents and other official sources. Information that contradicted official narratives was minimized and sometimes ignored completely. The station was even reluctant to report glaring discrepancies between official reports and witnesses. When these contradictions were noted, the official narrative was always prominent.
This dynamic develops for a simple reason. If a news organization actively challenges official storylines, it runs the risk of getting completely shut off from the flow of information. Police departments will remove the uncooperative reporter or media outlet from its press release list. Phone calls suddenly don’t get returned. Interviews get denied. Without access to these official sources, reporters find it increasingly difficult to do their jobs. And of course, channel XYZ down the street will toe the line and break the story. Knowing this, reporters, producers and news directors will go to great lengths to maintain friendly relationships with their official contacts. They have to in order to protect their access to information. This breeds a reluctance to challenge any official report, lest they should offend their sources.
If this happens at the local level, it certainly must occur at the national level, where government agencies guard information even more closely and access to information sources becomes more valuable. Of course Joe Journalist is going to report juicy information Sue Source just told him off the record, even if he can’t confirm it. If he doesn’t report it, he knows somebody else will. And he doesn’t want to offend Sue and risk getting cut off from his inside source.
Of course, nobody with an ounce of sense actually trusts “official” storylines. But the overreliance on government sources in news gathering creates a media environment where most stories largely reflect the narrative government officials want to advance.
This presents a major challenge to journalists. They need to develop a willingness to challenge official reports when warranted. The more news outlets that adopt this kind of policy, the harder it will for officials to punish them by cutting them out of the loop. Journalists also need to work harder to confirm official reports. That means talking to more witnesses and the actors involved, and taking their accounts seriously. Unfortunately, deadline driven environments where reporters are often overworked and pushed by management to turn stories as fast as possible discourages this type of extra work. It’s easier to report “officials say” and move on to the next story.
Only solid journalism can counter “fake news.” Unfortunately, far too many media organizations are content to serve as government megaphones.
Photo by Loozrboy via Flickr.