Journalists and news organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere are increasingly wrestling with how to deal with alternative facts, untruths, and lies spread by political figures, government officials, and their supporters. These are not merely moral issues for journalists, but also will influence the sustainability of news organizations.
Neither accurately reporting false statements, nor reporting and challenging them, are adequate responses to continual misuse of the media and deliberate efforts to use the media to mislead the public. This, of courses, raises the thorny question of when to deny media access and coverage to individuals noted for engaging in those acts.
How they are handled depends upon their position. Elected officials should be treated differently than their advisors, aides, and supportive commentators and apologists. This occurs because elected officials and party leaders are accountable to the public through the ballot box, whereas others are not.
When elected officials or party leaders are untruthful they should be continually challenged and their lies exposed. When others are involved, journalists should not merely challenge and expose their lies, however. Journalists and their news organizations must not allow themselves to become pawns in manipulation and propagandistic efforts and should stop inviting those who would do so onto public affairs shows, not interview them for news stories, and not cover their public appearances.
These practices are designed to halt influence from those who are consistent purveyors of untruths and continually spread falsehoods. Their lack of intention to engage in open discussion and honest debate makes them unsuitable for exposure in serious journalistic forums. There are others with similar views who can fulfil those requirements.
Journalists have obligations to their readers, listeners, and viewers and society to pursue truth and facilitate healthy and truthful debate that presents differing perspectives. But they also have obligations to ensure that serial liars, wanton propagandists, and inflammatory speakers who deliberately distort and do not engage in honest debate are not provided platforms.
This is important because research shows that original claims are better remembered and given more credibility than media challenges and corrections, especially those coming 24-48 hours later.
Choices to deny access or coverage should be made only to determine how issues, ideas, and policies are discussed and presented in media and by whom, not to stop their discussion or examination. Decisions of who will speak should be based on the past behavior of individuals. Denials of access and coverage should occur to individuals who are likely to deceive or deliberately confuse, thus harming the public and their understanding of public issues.
These are challenging times for democracy and for journalists. Great care in how ideas, policies, and claims are presented is necessary to ensure that citizens are effectively served by journalism. If journalism cannot rise to the occasion in difficult periods, there is little reason for it to exist. If news organizations and journalists do not act, they risk their sustainability. Lack of relevance, loss of credibility, and diminished trust will do more to promote the demise of firms than any changes to its technologies and business model.