“A baseball player can be right 40% of the time with a batting average of .400 and be considered one of the greatest of all time. Journalists have to be right 100% of the time and when they are wrong, own up to their mistakes and ask for forgiveness.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Selepak, a professor in the department of telecommunication at the University of Florida and director of the graduate program in social media. Dr. Selepak teaches courses on media writing, news and sports reporting, social media, and media ethics. He has also worked as a radio reporter in Virginia and Florida.
How did you get started in journalism?
When I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be on the radio. While in college at the University of Virginia, I had the opportunity to produce news stories on a local radio station. During my last year at UVA, I interned at a radio news station during the fall and spring semesters. After college, I worked for two years at what was then Clear Channel Radio as a DJ mostly on a classic rock station while also hosting a weekly call-in sports radio program.
After I moved to Florida for my PhD, I worked one summer at the sports and news talk station in my building as a radio reporter and anchor. Since starting my PhD at the University of Florida, and during the seven years since graduating, I have taught news and sports reporting courses, and a media writing course.
How has fake news impacted journalism in 2018?
Fake news has impacted the way I teach journalism in a lot of ways. One of the biggest was having to start lecturing on the conditions that led to fake news.
Fake news isn’t just false propaganda. It is also biased and partisan news. And fake new couldn’t have spread without the internet and social media. So to discuss fake news also requires talking about the rise of 24-hour news networks and how they had to find cheap programming with shows like Crossfire which were not news shows but political opinions from both sides under the guise of objectivity. But the popularity of shows like Crossfire and the rise of FOX News and MSNBC led to the need to provide even more content on these channels which had less to do with covering the news of the day and more about talking about what happened often with a political spin.
While the internet caused the decline of newspaper advertising revenue and cutbacks in coverage, if papers didn’t fold altogether, social media and partisan news sites meant people could sit in their echo chamber of political beliefs with their ideals reinforced through partisan coverage of the day’s stories. But this coverage was neither unbiased nor was it always accurate. It took all of these conditions to lead to fake news which could have only happened when a lack of traditional journalism and a rise in partisan 24-hour news channels created the conditions where news consumers lacked a clear and trusted voice like a Walter Cronkite.
Across nearly every topic, people are trusting the media less, according to a Gallup poll. What steps do teach your students to communicate trust and credibility in each story?
As I tell my students, it is better to be right than first. For the media, credibility can be lost in an instant. Whereas a baseball player can be right 40% of the time with a batting average of .400 and be considered one of the greatest of all time, journalists have to be right 100% of the time and when they are wrong, own up to their mistakes and ask for forgiveness.
Trust and credibility only comes from being accurate. People don’t watch the news for fairytales, they watch to be informed. The problem today is that with 24-hour news networks and partisan commentators and hosts, and the political division in this country, the news too often plays to their partisan base at the expense of objectivity and facts.
But news consumers are to blame as well because we have come to accept and expect partisan news and when a story actually does present an unbiased version of the truth, we disregard those facts that disagree with our beliefs, or we take to social media calling for boycotts or denigrate reporters who dare to present the news accurately, particularly when it comes to partisan issues which require the most objective reporting.
What projects are particularly challenging from the credibility perspective, and why?
As a professor, I grade my students and their work and test them on what I taught them. So even if they don’t believe me, they have to know what I taught to do well in the class. But each semester I tell my students early on that I am not trying to convince them to vote for one political party over another, but to know why they are voting for one candidate over another and not just because there is a D or R next to their name.
I also try to stay conscious of providing examples that are both positive and negative to both sides of the political spectrum while keeping my own beliefs to myself. Over the years this has gotten easier, but as we have become more politically partisan, I will have students who will write in course evaluations that I am too liberal or too conservative. But if students in the same class are saying I am too liberal and too conservative than I know I must have been doing a good enough job by balancing both sides.
How do you teach students to ensure sources contribute to the credibility of a story?
A story should present both sides when both sides are valid. At the same time, not all stories have two sides. If there is a car accident, they don’t need to interview someone who denies a car accident ever took place.
But when it comes to political issues, it is important to include interviews and soundbites from people representing both sides of an issue and to make sure that both sides being interviewed are of relatively equal credibility. A story should not have an interview with a government official supporting one side and an average citizen supporting the other side. This is not the equivalent of presenting both sides equally when one person provides greater credibility.
Sadly, it is not always easy to find two opposing views from equally credible interviewees. I can remember covering a news story about an issue in Florida and the local Republican Congressperson granted me an interview and the local Democrat Congressperson would not speak to me. In the end, my story was unbalanced, but as I had a deadline, I was left with few options.
Many people question whether supporting facts and evidence are true. How do you present them as trustworthy in your work?
Unlike with traditional print or broadcast, digital reporters have no excuse to not include links to where they got their facts and information so the audience can check the facts themselves. With traditional print and broadcast, a reporter can give their sources, but the audience cannot check them for themselves and in an age of fake news, the audience is not always willing to give reporters the benefit of the doubt.
Print and broadcast stories should all be made available online with links to supporting material and research so as to allow the audience to check the facts themselves. Although few audience members will probably actually do this, making such material available does add to a story and a reporter’s credibility.
Journalism is not an easy job. With pressure to hit deadlines while producing attention-grabbing stories, how does your process also build trustworthiness into your stories?
It is imperative that reporters cultivate credible sources. Working under a deadline requires having sources who will be readily available to do an interview or provide a quote so a reporter can finish their story and meet a deadline. But simply being available does not make a source credible and any source that burns a reporter by either not being available when needed or providing biased or inaccurate information needs to be eliminated as a trusted source.
When a reporter includes an interview or quote from a source and it proves inaccurate, the audience doesn’t blame the source, they blame the reporter for not knowing the information was inaccurate, biased, or false. A story’s credibility falls on the media outlet and the reporter, not the facts used in a story or the interviews included. A reporter without sources is like a plant without sunshine, which I am sure is a quote someone has said long before me. But just as it takes time to hone your craft as a journalist. It also takes time to cultivate sources who will be reliable and credible and not diminish a reporter’s reputation.
What tools help do you use that help make life as a credible journalist easier?
I tell my students, especially those who want to be reporters or who are already working at the news station on campus, it is important to check a story before they share it on social media. Factcheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and Snopes.com are all fact-checking websites that debunk fake news spreading online. It is very easy to check one of those sites before hitting the retweet or share button and spreading fake news.
This is particularly important for a reporter because despite any disclaimers they may put in their Twitter bio, the views and opinions expressed, including fake news stories, not only represent them as a reporter but also the media outlet where they work.
I even have an assignment where I have students find a story that Snopes has already determined is false and then see where it is still being spread online and to explain why they think people are sharing a story that has already been debunked and how this could be due to confirmation bias where we are more likely to believe stories that we want to believe are true.
What advice would you give to young journalists who are building a reputation?
Unlike doctors or lawyers who take an exam to become certified before they can practice their profession, there is no exam for journalists. In fact, being a journalist doesn’t even require a degree in journalism. Instead of being certified, reporters only have their reputation and credibility. If they lose these, it is the same as being debarred from law or medicine because no one will trust them to do their job. A reporter’s job is to seek the truth and report it.
I give my students numerous definitions of a journalist during the semester, and how this differs from a talking head, and the most significant difference is that a journalist reports the unbiased truth using credible and accurate information, and places this information in historical context to provide a better understanding. If a reporter cannot do this, no one will trust them to be a reporter and instead they should change careers and write fiction because it will be seen as just as believable.
What are your “5 Ways Journalists Can Win Back Trust In Journalism” and why?
- Real journalists need to remind their audience of the difference between a journalist and a talking head espousing partisan opinion. Our founders believed in a free market of ideas because they had trust in the people to seek the truth and therefore protected free speech while also protecting a free press. Journalism must have a faith in the people that if they provide accurate, credible and unbiased reporting, an audience will seek them out.
- Reporters must rely less on anonymous sources. An anonymous source must be a means to and end and not the end itself. An anonymous source lacks credibility because if they are unwilling to speak on the record, their hidden and personal motivations must be questioned including whether they are providing accurate information. When reporters run on-air with a scoop from an anonymous source, the audience is hesitant to believe the story unless it fits their own partisan bias and they want to believe the story, but this is not journalism.
- We need full disclosure from journalists. Too often on the 24-hour news networks, the audience is not told about the background of the person being interviewed or we don’t know about the background of the reporter. Too many people probably don’t know or remember that someone like George Stephanopoulos who hosts This Week on ABC worked for Al Gore and the Clintons and was a Democratic advisor. This knowledge could very-well skew how the audience views Stephanopoulos and his credibility. But he is just one of many undisclosed partisans seen on the news.
- While the news needs to achieve ratings, it must do so without being sensational. Many news outlets are guilty of click-bait social media posts, but many are just as guilty of sensational headlines and stories to bring in ratings. This cheapens a newscast because a news broadcast only has a limited amount of time to tell all the news of the world, and spending time on sensationalism prevents more important stories from being told and turns the news into the tabloid stories we see in the checkout line of the grocery store.
- The news must stop reporting on what is trending and instead cover the important stories of the day. Covering what is trending is playing catch-up with online and social media where the story is already being discussed. The news must go out and find the stories being missed and tell them in a compelling way so they are not chasing what is trending but creating what is trending. The internet will follow good reporting, but right now the opposite is happening.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
My father would tell me when I was growing up that someday my own son would ask for a new pair of Nikes and I could have one of two responses: Yes, I will get those for you or Sorry, I am happy with my job. And while this may have been true of generations past that worked in the mines and in the factories, today it is important for young people to find a career that they are passionate about. When they are passionate about their job, they are more likely to be successful, and if they are successful at their job, the money will come. Chasing dollar signs is a race you will always lose because even the richest person in the world will always be chasing more money. The goal is neither to work to live nor to live to work, but to find work that makes you excited on a Sunday night and not dreading the next day. I try to remind my students of this every day because if they pursue their passion, once they figure out what their passion is, they are more likely to find success than if they pursue what others think they should do or what they think will bring them the most wealth.
Can you give us your favorite life lesson quote and how that was relevant to you in your life?
During the semester, I try and give my students a number of inspirational quotes. These quotes don’t resonate with all of them, but they will resonate with some which is why it is important to include a few. One that I include in my last lecture of the semester is: “The only person you should try to be better than, is the person you were yesterday.” To me this is an important idea because we can always strive to learn more be it about art, history, politics, culture, religion, or any topic. But we can also strive to learn new skills.
I tell my students they should always be learning so that when someone asks them what they can do, it is an ever-growing list. We should all want to be a better version of ourselves but this cannot happen when we judge ourselves compared to others. Instead, we should just try to be a better us today than we were yesterday.
That was very inspiring. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview.
This interview is part of an interview series by TapeACall, the original iPhone call recording app. You can check it out at tapeacall.com.
Originally published at medium.com