Guest column: Not just anyone will do

Journalists are flawed like everyone else, but most are passionate, underpaid and honest people, writes Roger Plothow.

The adolescent daughter of a friend has figured out Wikipedia.

“Wikipedia lies,” she told her mother. When her mother asked who told her that, she said, “Well, you can add anything to it that you want.”

“Who told you that?” her mother asked.

It turns out the girl had been looking up Pokemon on Google, wound up on Wikipedia and figured it all out.

Why is it so hard, then, for so many adults to understand that Wikipedia is not a trustworthy information source?

You understand how Wikipedia works, right? It’s an online “encyclopedia” written by … anyone. The theory is that the internet is such a democratic information sharing medium that people will eventually fix errors because they will demand accuracy.

Right.

If you go to the entry for the Post Register on Wikipedia, you will learn that it is owned by “the Jerry Brady family and their employees.” This was never entirely accurate, but it’s also out of date by nearly a year and a half. The Post Register is now owned by the Adams Publishing Group.

This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is entirely useless. Sometimes helpful information can be discovered by following the links in the “Notes” section of each entry, which can lead to legitimate sources like newspapers or universities. Otherwise, open-access journalism is little different than citizen journalism, which was all the rage a few years ago.

Forgive me a rant, but the idea of citizen journalism is a little offensive to those of us who take journalism seriously. Journalism, as I said before, is actually a thing, with a definition, a code of ethics and organizations that exist solely to protect and promote its value and meaning.

If your sink is leaking, do you drive down the street looking for a “citizen plumber,” or do you find someone with credentials and experience? To whom do you turn when you’re sick or in need of legal advice or needs your shoe repaired? Not just anyone will do.

It’s easy to understand the aversion some people feel toward journalists. As I’ve written before, part of the problem is that many people claiming the journalist label don’t follow the required ethics. We can also come across as arrogant or self-righteous, even though most print journalists I’ve known over the past 35 years tend to be more shy and withdrawn than boisterous and over-bearing. Most depictions of journalists in the movies have us all wrong.

The danger in accepting the myth that journalists are power-hungry deceivers pursuing a hidden agenda, now routinely expounded by members of the current administration, is that it leaves people to turn to less credible sources for information. Journalists are flawed like everyone else, but most are passionate, underpaid and honest people pursuing an honorable vocation.

When anyone says a whole class of people, be they journalists or lawyers or members of the clergy, are dishonest or otherwise unworthy of respect, it’s a sure sign that the problem lies with the speaker and not the target of their commentary.


Roger Plothow is Editor and Publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a yearlong weekly series on news and media literacy.


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