The Public Relations Strategist

Real Views on Fake News: Q-and-A With Brent Jones, Standards and Ethics Editor, USA Today

By John Elsasser

April 24, 2017

[USA Today]
[USA Today]

As standard and ethics editor, Brent Jones is the primary link between USA Today’s newsroom and its readers. In addition to his reader representative role, Jones is the guardian of newsroom best practices, which involves monitoring sourcing, diversity, fairness and balance in news coverage. He has worked in various newsroom roles for more than 15 years.

“Fake news” has been all the rage since the election. How are you addressing this inside the newsroom?

We’ve been having conversations in our newsroom on the importance of the distinction between fabricated content deliberately set out to deceive audiences and the trustworthy content that we produce every day.

The term itself has become so bloated. It’s been upped from the narrow definition to encompass mistakes made by legitimate organizations and even “I don’t like that opinion.”

We will restrict our use of the term “fake news,” and when the label is used in a quote, we will make sure to explain to our audiences what the person quoted is referencing, and if indeed it is what we consider fake.

Is fake news a real problem? Absolutely. Is it something that filters into how people consume information? Absolutely. We saw very plainly with this recent presidential election, where stories were shared that, arguably, folks didn’t bother to read — because these kinds of stories tickled people’s interest or they shared it because it’s aligned with their own ideology.

How are you reassuring people about your reporting?

We do that in a number of ways. First, the journalism that we produce is governed by ethical principles that reinforce our commitment to trust and relationships with our audiences. In fact, we’ve been working to make sure that the principles continue to reflect this digital landscape. And those principles provide clear, detailed guidance. For example, most of these fake news stories are absent of sources.

When you look at what we do, having a clearly defined sourcing policy, the bar here is really high. We have fact-checking and technical editing that takes place, which is a part of our principles. And those include guidance and further probing of the facts that we produce, continued questioning of a story’s premise. That protection of trust is fingerprinted over everything we do.

Beyond principles that guide journalism, there are efforts within our newsrooms to be more transparent about the news-gathering process, such as bringing community leaders into our newsrooms as we’re doing in places like The Tennessean or The Courier-Post — to make sure that we’re getting nuanced, accurate perspectives. In addition to accuracy, it’s a great way to build trust. I think it’s important when you look at our news sites, and even my own role, that we recognize the importance of a clear pathway to accountability.

When you look at a site and you have a concern or an issue, there should be a point of reference where somebody is on the other end to help you and to make sure that, for example, a correction claim is vetted and answered, and that audiences understand that. That’s another way to ensure accuracy. It’s also making the public aware of how we set the record straight.

So if we make a mistake, the USA Today newsroom does not bury corrections at the bottom of stories. It is clearly labeled. And while some may say, “You just got someone’s name wrong,” that’s not the reason why we put it at the top. We put it at the top because trust is important to us. And this is a practice that is carried throughout our network.

Are you giving any extra scrutiny now to media representatives who are pitching stories or experts?

Our job is, in our quest for truth, to be as accurate as possible, and that involves not just assembling facts that sources give us, but also contextualizing, vetting and probing them. So regardless of whether it’s a pitch that comes to us, or a tip that we get from someone in the community or from social, we have to vet them.

And in this climate, the greater challenge is the headlines that point to false information at times and to information designed to discredit news organizations. We have to be highly skeptical not just weighing the source, but weighing the value of the information that the source is providing, against the public’s need and right to know.

It feels as if the media might be under attack from all sides. Could this ultimately be a positive thing?

There is certainly a robust conversation about what we do and the public value we provide. I think it’s coming from lots of different directions. But our mission needs to be the same that we’ve always had, to seek and report the truth. In doing that, we don’t want to place ourselves squarely in the middle of what some have termed a battle zone.

That gets dangerous and takes us away from our true mission, which remains the same. It doesn’t matter who makes the statement. If it’s a public official, we need to hold that person accountable to what he or she says, does, tweets or writes. I think there’s some doubling down on how we communicate our values. We’ve always prided ourselves on serving the public by sharing and telling and pointing them to great stories.

But as an industry, where we probably have lost our way was in this great period of disruption in our business. As technology has made its way into the corners of newsprint space, we’ve lost sight of telling our own story. And I think this is what makes this season that we’re in a beautiful opportunity to be journalists, because we have an awesome opportunity to not only tell great stories as we do, but also to punctuate them through clear labeling, through clinging to our ethical principles, through greater engagement with our audiences, to tell great stories about what journalism is, and to engage the public.

I get excited when I hear of any news organization’s subscription numbers going up. Digital audiences are revving up, as is the case with USA Today. People are turning to us. They care about what we’re doing, and they’re standing and rallying behind the purpose of journalism. It becomes a story about all of us. And there’s something beautiful about that.

The excitement is apparent in speaking with you.

We feel that here. There’s this great desire to engage in the news, and with the happenings and the history that’s being made. I can’t think of a better way to engage than by way of journalism.

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