Malyarov’s Open Letter to Everyone Looking for Real Journalism

“Standing up for facts is a kind of patriotic act, and a necessary one.”

Those words from Dartmouth College professor Brendan Nyhan close a thought-provoking piece by Nikolay Malyarov in Fipp.

Malyarov’s “open letter to everyone looking for real journalism” makes the valid and important point that true journalism is far from dead … if you know how to find it.

“It’s easy to sit back and point the finger at mainstream media as the culprits of the compost we’re seeing online, but that’s not only unwarranted, it’s irresponsible,” Malyarov writes. He cites the recent Coral Project that finds that people “want to be part of the conversation” with journalists and editors. And he warns that this access comes with a steep price.

“If you want to be involved, you better start taking responsibility for your role in fact-checking what you’re reading, commenting on and sharing,” he states.

By now you’ve probably seen some of the stats on how bad we are at discerning fake news from real news. While there’s massive mistrust overall in the media, somehow we believe that our own sources are legitimate. Recognizing our folly, according to Malyarov, is the only way we begin combatting the fake news epidemic.

Sharing a story that you haven’t vetted – which, let’s face it, happens ALL the time on social media – is the root of the problem. Stopping that, Malyarov notes, is the critical first step. Next, we must stop normalizing the abnormal.

“One of the things that struck me as anything but normal last year was the treatment of fake news by the general public. Instead of recognising it for what it was – total garbage – people treated it like it was legitimate and worth sharing,” he writes.

As we inched closer to Election Day last fall, the engagement on fake news surpassed that of mainstream news – more people were reading, sharing, liking and commenting on the garbage that on stories from respected media brands.

The way to stop this trend, Malyarov says, is by choosing news sources that have earned a reputation for quality journalism. He agrees that studies shows trust in the media is decline. But he’s quick to point out that not all media is created equal.

“Newspapers and magazines that have been around for generations have worked hard at gaining the trust and loyalty of their audiences.  Even with some hiccups along the way, the same YouGov study (notably, post-US Presidential election) showed that the absolutely majority of Americans still trust in the newspapers,” he notes.

Many of those brands have been caught up in the broad net of media distrust, in part because of their desire for online engagement (what will they say for that click?) and also thanks to blowback from native ads. Fortunately, Malyarov sees the tide turning.

“But 2017 is another chance to start again and we’re already seeing changes, starting with The New York Times’ 2020 strategy which shifts focus away from quantity and page views to quality, relevance and deeper engagement with reader.  The journalist community is also stepping up to the plate with a renewed commitment to regain the trust of the people – starting with [January’s] open letter to Donald Trump from the US press corps.

“We will set higher standards for ourselves than ever before. We credit you with highlighting serious and widespread distrust in the media across the political spectrum. Your campaign tapped into that, and it was a bracing wake-up call for us. We have to regain that trust. And we’ll do it through accurate, fearless reporting, by acknowledging our errors and abiding by the most stringent ethical standards we set for ourselves,” read a portion of the letter.

Now it’s our turn. Malyarov urges us all to be advocates for truth, not falling for fake news and propaganda, no matter which side of the aisle it comes from.

“In 2017, let’s make a commitment to seek out and support quality journalism and shun that which is not.  And, let’s help those who struggle to differentiate facts from fiction, because as Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth College said, ‘Standing up for facts is a kind of patriotic act, and a necessary one.’”

It’s time.