Last month, Freedom of Information Day came and went relatively quietly once again on March 16. It was chosen so because it is the birthday of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States. Historians tell us that Madison, one of the main authors of our U.S. Constitution, was adamant about having an open government. FOI day happens to be a marker in my world because it is also my birthday. I like to think that being born on that day predestined me to become a journalist.
I was thinking about freedom of information recently because of all the bloggers and “fake” news that spew thoughts and notions across Internet airwaves with nothing more than the click of keyboard keys. So much “thought noise” zooms around over the electronic skyway that it may be difficult to know if what someone is posting is true or if it even constitutes “news.” What is news anymore?
The Merriam Webster online dictionary (in existence in print form since 1828) defines news as: “a report of recent events,” or “previously unknown information,” or “something having a specified influence or effect.” Webster’s second set of definitions for news are: “material reported in a newspaper or news periodical or on a newscast” (obviously a bit dated), or “matter that is newsworthy.”
When I was in journalism school at the University of Illinois many moons ago, we discussed the main criteria by which something was deemed newsworthy: How many people did the event or information affect; and did people need to know about this event or information to make decisions about their daily lives?
There is also the more salacious newsroom definition that every reporter knows: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Let’s take the recent Ethiopian airline crash that killed 157 people, for example. Most of us felt the human connection when we first heard about it – empathy for the relatives and friends of the crash victims. Now the crash has focused the spotlight on the safety of that aircraft, which has been grounded worldwide. These reports in some way affect everyone who boards an airplane.
If someone is claiming to be a news source, and making a claim about someone or something, but they don’t have the on the record evidence to back it up, steer clear. If a post or blog contains foul language or comments about someone’s appearance or something else obviously not newsworthy, that in no way constitutes news legitimacy.
The American Press Institute (www.americanpressinstitute.org) recently did a study about the trustworthiness of news sources. The one thing that stood out was this: “On every topic and regardless of the source, getting the facts right is critical.”
In other words, if you are purporting to be a news source, you don’t get to make up your own facts. I bring this up because what happens when someone who authors a blog wants to get news credentials? Should the number of viewers or followers count? I would argue absolutely not. Our voyeuristic tendencies as humans draw us toward the most salacious or graphic items on the Internet. But that doesn’t mean they are newsworthy. If that were the criteria, we’d be getting information from porn sites.
Reputable news sources, whether a one-person show or an operation like CNN or KUAM, use legitimate, mostly on the record sources to independently verify the facts on which they are reporting. If someone claims to be disseminating news and makes a claim, they had better be ready to back up that claim with factual evidence: an on- the-record source, documents, etc., that can prove that the claim is true. That’s why, in legitimate news stories, you read or hear the reporter say, “according to so-and-so,” or “according to officials at the Department of Revenue and Taxation (or whichever agency or organization can verify a stated fact).”
The general rule is that if a source is stating a factual event or piece of information that is not easily verifiable, the reporter should have two independent sources that can factually back up that claim.
If someone is claiming to be a news source, and making a claim about someone or something, but they don’t have the on the record evidence to back it up, steer clear. If a post or blog contains foul language or comments about someone’s appearance or something else obviously not newsworthy, that in no way constitutes news legitimacy. It may be salacious entertainment, but it’s not news.
As for credentialing news operations, I looked at a combination of sources: a 2014 study by Harvard University, an article on the topic from www.adweek.com, and the United States Press Agency (www.unitedstatespressagency.com). According to these sources, credentialing has much (but not everything) to do with whether you are a paid employee of a news organization (on a local level for instance, KUAM, Pacific News Center, PDN, Guam Daily Post, Marianas Business Journal, Pacific Island Times etc.), and/or (in the case of independent journalists) whether more than half of your income is derived from your reporting.
I would also add this caveat when dealing with independent requests, especially on the local level: look at the quality of the reporting of the requestor. Does the blog or website contain information independently verified by factual sources? Does the writer offer attribution for what he or she is stating as fact? Is it all opinion? Is foul language used (a sign of unprofessionalism)? Does the posting or story contain information that is useful to people?
Old school journalists like myself have a saying: “If your mother tells you that she loves you, check it out.” It’s a good rule to follow with any information that you receive from any source – even your mom.
Jayne Flores, a longtime journalist, is now the acting director of the Bureau of Women’s Affairs of the government of Guam. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.