From time to time at newspaper offices, odd letters and packages arrive in the mail. Fortunately, the Tribune office has never received anthrax or bombs, just an occasional missive presumably mass mailed to journalists across the United States.
While writing last week’s story on Mike Wagner’s presentation at the Waunakee Public Library on fake news during this time of political polarization, I received one such letter – who knows if it was generated by a “bot” in Russia or Macedonia. According to Wagner, a UW-Madison professor of journalism and mass communications, and other experts in the field, tweets and other social media messages from these locations are, indeed, surfacing in news reports.
The letter was signed Angel Luis Ponce de León, from Lake Worth, Florida, and coincidentally, it urged journalists to avoid giving the United States president “free publicity” and focused on Trump’s attacks on the press.
Usually, I toss such letters in the trash, but given the subject matter and how it related to the story I was writing, it seemed worth talking about. Here is one excerpt:
“Repeat constantly the name of the president, according to accredited psychologists, has a double effect, for some it produces attraction and support for his ideas, for others produce conformism and resignation. This gives electoral advantage to his person and the Republican Party.”
The letter goes on to point out Trump’s accusation that the media is the No. 1 enemy of the American people.
“The aggression to the media is increasing, reaching extreme situations, such as not allowing the presence or even expelling journalists from their press conferences or presentations. This fanfare is extremely harmful to journalists in the United States and the world, perhaps we could relate to the recent horrible attacks with bomb packages and that suffered the press in Annapolis, Maryland,” Mr. Ponce de León writes.
As a journalist, one of the most troubling takeaways from Wagner’s talk was the shroud of uncertainty in this country resulting from distrust in the media.
The press, also known as the Fourth Estate, plays a key role in interpreting our lawmakers’ messages and delivering them to the public. Wagner noted that most Wisconsinites will never meet U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin or House Representative Mark Pocan in person. Their policies are reported by the press. But without trust in the press, who knows what to believe?
Attacks on the media result in distrust and can spread chaos. Tweets from the White House, which seem to be the president’s preferred form of communication to the public, often contradict one another. Sometimes they don’t seem worth reporting, but journalists are compelled to share the messages and contradictions. That’s their job, after all.
Spreading distrust in the press may have a self-serving purpose. If the public doesn’t know what to believe, how can voters feel their choices are informed during election time? Ultimately, it can discourage the democratic process.
Journalists can help to rebuild and retain trust. First, we need to check our sources. We need to determine that any Twitter messages we reprint are generated by actual people, not “bots.” We also should fact check any stories we pick up from social media. When we make mistakes, and we do, we need to admit them and be sure to relay the correction. We also need to make sure we reveal our sources and how we gathered information for our stories. Finally, we will need to print the president’s name mainly to be precise.
As consumers of the news, we should be sure to look for documented sources in stories and how information is gathered.
The media plays a key role in a democracy, helping to uncover abuses, spark debates about issues to allow for more informed choices, and relay our leaders’ and their constituents’ messages. Discounting the press altogether only undermines the ideology this country was founded upon.