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What Can We Do About the Perception of Made-Up News?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
April 25, 2021

It’s true. The American public is losing faith in its traditional news sources. A 2018 Gallup survey of the public’s confidence in United States institutions put newspapers and television news near the bottom. 40% of respondents reported little or no faith in the printed media, and 45% shared those feelings about TV news. An Ipsos poll last year found nearly one-third of Americans agreed the news media is the, “Enemy of the people.”

That’s pretty harsh, but it’s what they believe. And government doesn’t fare too well either.

It’s not just frustrating, but frightening to know that 30 to 45% of citizens don’t trust the very institutions that exercise the right of free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Let’s see if we can sort this out. In my opinion, three components of this issue need to be addressed: (1) personal hypocrisy and ignorance, (2) evaluation of today’s media and (3) what can be done to re-establish a respectful perception.

In terms of personal hypocrisy, have you ever heard someone refer to your local newspaper in derogatory terms? In one example from my own Northern Utah community, a disgruntled citizen may refer to the Standard-Examiner as the, “Sub-Standard Exaggerator?” Yet, in another conversation, that same individual will substantiate his comments with the statement, “I read it in the paper.” That’s not fair.

In today’s world, some politicians may use the term “fake news” to dismiss anything negative about them or their positions simply because the information is disagreeable. They might even create fabrications to counter uncomfortable stories. Pointing fingers is a precarious thing if we consider the timeless adage, “When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back at you.”

As we evaluate today’s media, we must admit, there is such a thing as made-up news. However, most information that deserves that label is found in social media. By and large, mainstream media take their responsibilities seriously. It is important to distinguish between professional journalism and others that claim the title but don’t operate professionally. They were created to attract attention, entertain and earn big dollars.

It is important for major media institutions and individual journalists to be responsible. The Society of Professional Journalists and its local chapters promote a code of ethics that includes these principles: (1) Seek Truth and Report It (2) Minimize Harm (by treating sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect) (3) Act Independently and (4) Be Accountable and Transparent.

On the other hand, it’s important for public officials to be just as responsible as we expect our journalists to be.

Our own American Society for Public Administration’s Code of Ethics is a, “Statement of the aspirations and high expectations of public servants,” to which every elected and appointed office holder, civics educator and community leader should and must adhere.

After all, that code of ethics addresses the very principles outlined for journalists. They include: (1) advancing the public interest over personal interests, (2) upholding the Constitution and the national and local laws, along with developing policies that promote the public good, (3) promoting democratic participation by informing and engaging the public through transparency and responsiveness, (4) respecting individual rights, differences and freedoms through promotion of fairness, justice, equality and social equity, (5) fully providing elected officials, board members, managers and employees with timely, honest and complete information to sustain their effectiveness, (6) demonstrating personal integrity in order to inspire respect for public service, (7) promoting the ASPA Code of Ethics and high professional standards in all organizations who serve the public, and (8) advancing professional excellence by encouraging the development of personal capabilities, competencies and ethics in others.

For the most part, today’s journalists and news media personnel are responsible followers of their codes of ethics. I know them. I’ve observed them closely. I’ve been one of them. And they are clearly not “enemies of the people.”

The same may be spoken of the vast majority of our public officials. They too adhere to their codes of ethics and honorable commitments. I know them as well. I’ve observed them closely and I’ve been one of them.

So, here’s what we can do about the perception of fake news. We can test the media stories, along with the claims of the finger pointers. Reputable agencies like FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, TruthOrFiction.com and Politifact.com dedicate their resources to helping the public find the truth.

Beyond that, as public officials, it’s important for us to be straight with the media and our constituents, feeding them honest information—the bad as well as the good. They can deal with the truth.

In summary, to sustain a healthy and open society, responsible news organizations must exist; public figures must devote themselves to being thoroughly truthful and citizens must look for a balanced variety of news sources regularly while validating the information they receive.

This is how trust can be restored. And we can all do better.


Author: Robert A. Hunter is a state and local leader in Utah’s public service arena, currently serves as public affairs consultant for United Way of Northern Utah, and teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University. He may be contacted at: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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