What is a news item?

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When I taught the Introduction to Journalism course to first-year students at La Cité collégiale in Ottawa, I asked them at the beginning of the year if they could define "news" for me - what constitutes real news and why should it be published or broadcast?  Today, I should ask them if they could distinguish between news and false news. They were already having trouble answering my first question...

In ten years things have changed in journalism, and maybe not always for the better. It's the false news that makes the headlines today followed by a multitude of comments from columnists who are not even accountable to their audiences in print, electronic and online media. 

The truth is that there have always been false news, errors, hoaxes, exaggerations by the PR people or misinformation, as in times of great world conflicts, for example. But today with the proliferation of messages coming from everywhere but especially from social networks and the Internet, the phenomenon of false news has grown. Even the most brilliant citizen has a great deal of difficulty ensuring the veracity of information.  

The traditional means of uncovering falsehoods or intentional errors, such as press councils, ombudsmen or even the courts, no longer hold sway. Other means are needed to prevent this problem from spreading any further. 

Some countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom have passed laws to sanction social media companies that do not remove false news and hate speech from their platforms. In Italy, consideration is being given to imposing stiff fines on companies that knowingly spread false information. The Czech Republic and Ukraine have set up centres to combat misinformation. In North America, governments are calling on media companies and information professionals (journalists, publishers, professors, researchers) to deal with this dirty business for fear of violating the fundamental right to freedom of opinion and freedom of the press.  

Of course, there is a way to fight the false news on its preferred terrain, i.e. on the Internet and social networks, and this is being done more and more. 

In the United States, as elsewhere, there are fact-checking sites. The best known is undoubtedly POLITIFACT, which evaluates the claims of elected officials, party leaders or other organizations involved in the political arena. With a president like Donald Trump, there is no shortage of material. 

For his part, Professor Marc-André Gagnon of Carleton University in Ottawa doubts the effectiveness of efforts to rectify the facts: "When you shoot at a common piece of information and then show it to be false, in many cases the reader does not go beyond the headline, and you only reinforce the misconception by repeating it. (Sormany, Pierre, La science dit tout et son contraire: True or false, 2017).  

 

It is impossible to correct all the wrongs of spreading false news with the same remedy. But if we look at what is being done elsewhere, there is surely a way to find an original way to combat this sad trend in New Brunswick. Because here, as elsewhere, unfortunately, "fake news" has made its appearance. It is even difficult to differentiate false news from legitimate news in the traditional and recognized media here at home (the Irving family newspapers, CBC/Radio-Canada, Acadie Nouvelle, etc.). Here is an example. 

When the Leader of a political party says outside the legislature that "...the proof is in and everyone knows it. French immersion programs are a total failure in New Brunswick."  

One may wonder whether this is a truth, a fact, or just an opinion to generate debate in society. This is only one example among many, but it goes to the heart of what makes New Brunswick the only bilingual province in the country. There is a way to verify the veracity of this statement for the common good. It is even essential to set the record straight. It is the same for all "dubious" information coming from a person in authority. The quality media should do a verification as one does so well during an election campaign, a sort of "verification done" column. Such a column by a team of experienced journalists will restore and enlighten the reader, listener or viewer and even the hungry on the Web. There is no need to produce this column for all the crazy information that can be read on FaceBook and other social networks. A "silliness" is still a silliness - it may make people laugh but what's the point of giving it a second or third life? 

 

To counter the slippage nothing better than to return to the journalistic principles: objectivity, balance, credible sources and a variety of points of view. That's what I wanted to teach the first-year students in the Introduction to Journalism course. 

It's still the right thing to do today, and curious people will always have to turn to the quality media to get fair, impartial and useful information so that they can better fulfill their role as responsible citizens in a democratic society.