Tablet, newspaper and coffee on table rzoze19/iStock/Thinkstock
DEFINITION: The question of the day: What if you read something you don’t like about someone you do like? Is that fake news? (Answer: no.)

Ask yourself this: Says who?

As politicians tweet “fake news” and the television folks can’t decide if they’re sharing news or their opinions on the news, here’s a look at what really matters — both in our world and in agriculture.

Somewhere over the past 20 years or so, I’ve gotten to be real distrustful. I don’t pick up a story or click on a link without asking, “Says who?”

Who wrote this, who’s their source, who actually knows what they’re talking about, who has a degree in what they’re talking about? Who’s publishing it and why?

It started years ago with all the GMO nonsense and anti-ag propaganda on the internet. Even today, if I read a story about what I should eat and why, I want to know who wrote it (are they a legit journalist), who published it (are they trying to sell me something) and who they’re quoting (is that person a food scientist or some other nutritionally sound expert). Otherwise? It’s just some random guy on the internet giving you his opinion.

In the age of fake news, there are lessons to be had here.

Fake news, my friends. I cringe every single time I hear the phrase. Sometimes because it’s identifying a blatant assault on truth, and sometimes because it’s such a misuse of the term. I’d say it’s become a joke unto itself, but it’s not very funny.

The real fake news
Because here’s the thing: There are actual people and websites set up in this world to deceive you — to trick you into thinking the story you just clicked on is a legitimate news story, and the byline and sources are real people. But they’re not. Late last year when NPR dug into a fake news website, The Denver Guardian, they found a guy in a suburb, just makin’ stuff up in his basement. One headline read, “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Links Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.” But there was no FBI agent. There was no shooting. There was no Denver Guardian. Still, it was shared on Facebook over a half million times. In 10 days, it got more than 1.6 million views. The only thing that was real were the ads, because this guy in his basement discovered he could make up stories, get people to click and believe and share, and he could make as much as $30,000 a month.

That’s scary.

We’ve listened as the word “fake” has gotten thrown around far too loosely, too. Fake does not describe a story you don’t agree with. Fake is a guy on his laptop in New Jersey making up stories on a made-up website with a fake byline to generate clicks and ads. 

In a lot of ways, it’s becoming harder to be good news consumers. Who do you trust? (Prairie Farmer? Obviously!) But for national news, really, who do you trust?

Personally, I have a short list. I don’t pay any attention to cable news; I flipped on the TV at lunch a couple of years ago and was aghast at the editorializing the news reader was doing as she delivered the “news.” I’ll take my news without your opinions and eye rolls, thank you very much. Because I believe in supporting legitimate new organizations, I’ve taken digital subscriptions to the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and The Washington Post. I examine every one of their stories carefully at the top so I know if I’m reading news or opinion/analysis. Both are useful but each is different. That’s a lot easier to determine in print journalism than in television these days. Sometimes I agree with them. Sometimes I don’t. That’s OK. It doesn’t make the facts any less true.

On hunger and freedom
In the midst of all this confusion, politicians muddy the journalistic waters, suggesting that journalists operate with total impunity, which is simply not true (FYI: link is to an opinion piece.)The consequences of bad reporting can be severe.

Obviously, I work in a tiny subset of journalism, in agricultural business-to-business publications, but I still know that to be true. In ag journalism, we monitor each other. We operate under a code of ethics, and without undue influence by advertisers. Twice in my career, sources have threatened to sue me.

That was both exciting and annoying, though not equally so.

The point is, we do our best; we stand by our stories and our reporting. We value freedom of the press and we know, like freedom of speech, that rights come with responsibilities. There are standards and laws that have to be followed, for good reason.

When I first traveled overseas with the International Federation of Ag Journalists, I met journalists from African nations ruled by corrupt regimes. They told us again and again: Where the press is not free, there is hunger. There is corruption, and it is permitted because it can’t be reported on. Unfettered power leads to control of the food supply. Yet where the press is free, the people are fed.

We need to think long and hard about that in agriculture, and beyond. 

Comments? Email [email protected].

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