Opinion: Advice for reporting in a post-truth world

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Photo by Darrell Hoemann/Big-AgWatch.org

Reporters interview U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Sept. 10, 2015. Vilsack spoke at the University of Illinois Energy Farm just south of Urbana, Illinois.

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

I’ve spent the last 30 years or so of my life wrestling with facts. Discovering them. Reporting and commenting on them. I’ve been proud to be part of the U.S. brother and sisterhood of journalists who live by a journalism ethics code that guides our search for the truth in the hope that it contributes to a strong democracy.

From time to time, something I produced for radio or written for the internet has made a real difference in someone’s life.  It is a worthy endeavor.

And once upon a time journalists were trusted by the public for uncovering wrongs, both public and private.

One of my first memories of the press in action was watching my father unfailingly during the dinner hour flipping to the Chicago CBS affiliate to listen to Walter Cronkite’s soothing baritones reporting “That’s the way it is.”

Yet since those days, public trust in the media has been eroding.

In the heated back-and-forth of this year’s presidential debate, as reported by a Gallop poll in September, public trust in the media fell to a record low — with Americans believing only 32 percent of the media reports the news “fully, accurately and fairly.”

Let’s not mince words here.  The media is under siege, led by President-elect Donald Trump, who in the wake of his Nov. 8 victory, continues to paint the entire media pool “dishonest.”

Trump supporters will not like me saying that the president-elect played loose with the truth AND has, with few exceptions, been impervious to fact checking.

All politicians spin, exaggerate and, from time to time, lie (or in a politically-correct-sort-of-way tell mistruths).

But if there is one thing I’ve learned in watching this year’s election, it is that facts and truth do NOT matter.

What matters is post-truth. What Oxford Dictionary says is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The more post-truths President-elect Trump told, the more he was rewarded by the American public.

And Trump has taken post truth to levels never seen before in U.S. politics.

Former Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski’s as much as admitted that at Harvard’s post-election forum:

This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes, when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar, you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.

And then there is this remarkable exchange between ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and Vice-President elect Mike Pence over what is “truth.”

Here’s the thing: If post truth holds sway, can the “dishonest,” “corrupt” and “the worst” media regain the public’s flagging trust?  Or will the media — and its support of democracy — become irrelevant?

I believe the incoming administration will do whatever it can to negate media truth-telling, including making it far easier for public figures to sue the media.

Certainly, social media will also be part of the effort.  I believe Trump will bypass the media as much as possible (his last press conference was July 27), in favor of using the internet and rallies to deliver the news he wants the public to hear.

Exhibit one from Trump’s Twitter account on Nov. 27:  “… I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

I spend my days now mostly blogging about the federal and state governments, and their relationships with the nation’s largest agricultural corporations. There’s no end to agricultural stories that the ag industry and the feds would not like the public to know. But in a post-truth world, ag reporters will need to be on their toes more than ever before.

Former Ronald Reagan press secretary Larry Speakes once famously said: “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true.”

The media’s challenge is not to tire in shining a fact-checking light on what promises to be an onslaught of post-truth telling over the next four years… and perhaps longer.

Bob Dylan once rhapsodized “The Times They are A-Changing”:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

That’s good advice… keep digging for the truth.  Be balanced and fair. Call fake news for what it is.  Get outside partisan echo chambers. Don’t grow weary.  Be apolitical on the job. Don’t get discouraged if a Trump administration standing policy is either “no comment” or post-truth pablum. The future of journalism truth telling — and what it means for democracy — is at stake.


About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch

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