COMMENTARY: Support newspapers and help fight fake news

On Friday, I will lead a presentation about the importance of newspapers in an era of fake news as part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Festival of International Books & Arts, or FESTIBA.

It is a similar presentation I have made the last two years. The concern in 2017 was the spreading of fake news stories, which was prevalent during the 2016 presidential campaign and may have actually had an impact on the final outcome. There are still fake news stories out there that people believe and share on social media.

However, the fight against fake news has multiple fronts. Not only is the media fighting against fabricated online stories, but President Donald Trump refers to news stories that are unfavorable to his administration as “fake.” On Feb. 20, Trump tweeted “The New York Times reporting is false. They are the true ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE.”

To that, I say keep reading newspapers. It is an important time in our history to consume fact-based information. Newspapers will give you reliable facts so that you can make informed decisions.

The Monitor and other newspapers are not fabricating stories. Everything is fact-based. You may not like what is written, but that doesn’t mean that the story is fake news.

The president didn’t call the Washington Post fake after it reported that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, listed her race as “American Indian” on a form for the state bar while in Texas.

After the democrat governor of Virginia came under fire for a blackface photo on his medical school yearbook page, there were calls for him to step down. If he were to resign, the lieutenant governor would take his place. However, the media reported on an accusation of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor, who is a Democrat. No one was shouting fake news about that.

A free press is vital for a strong democracy. Journalists are not cheerleaders but play an important role as a watchdog for the community. Reporters are supposed to hold leaders and institutions at all levels accountable.

That is already a tall task without having to compete with all the misinformation online.

Many of us are guilty of sharing stories without investigating them first. A Pew Research Center survey found that 23 percent of Americans have shared fake news. According to another Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2016, most Americans (64 percent) believe fake news stories make it difficult for people to separate fact from fiction.

The president isn’t helping when he deems stories he doesn’t like as “fake news.” That muddies the difference between accurate, fact-based reporting and actual fake news.

Whether you are for or against construction of a border wall, you should want to know the details. How much will it cost? Who will actually pay for it? Will it work? What might be the economic and environmental impact for places such as the Rio Grande Valley? These are questions the media is trying to get answered.

To be fair, Trump isn’t the only politician to take issue with the media. He’s just the loudest objector. During the Obama administration, nine cases involving whistle-blowers and leakers were prosecuted, compared to only three by all previous administrations combined.

According to The New York Times, the Justice Department under Obama monitored journalists’ phone records and issued subpoenas to try and force reporters to reveal sources.

This only makes it more difficult for journalists to do their job and provide factual news.

Let’s not make it even more difficult by spreading fabricated stories on social media, or by calling stories you don’t like “fake news.”

Best of all, you can fight fake news by reading newspapers in print and online. It is important during this divisive time in American politics to take newspapers seriously and to be informed citizens through fact-based stories.

Join me at 9:30 a.m. on Friday in Room 109 of the Liberal Arts Building North at the UTRGV Edinburg campus for a discussion on the importance of finding fact-based information and news from legitimate news organization and websites in a sea of false online information.

Peter Rasmussen is digital content editor for The Monitor. Contact him at prasmussen@themonitor.com.

Correction: The story has been updated to give the correct party affiliation of the Virginia governor.