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Sinclaire Sparkman: Transparency is tricky business

Sinclaire Sparkman • Updated Mar 31, 2017 at 1:00 PM

Let’s be honest, it’s difficult to know what information to trust these days. 

The shadow of doubt has grown so long that it eclipses most if not all stories with a headline. Try as we might, the fake news buzzword is prevalent and unrelenting, and we journalists might as well just give up and leave your information in the hands of those that send us press releases. Right? 

The journalism industry reeling from the rise of the internet and the downfall of government transparency have left the people confused and empty handed in the wake of contention, and the media landscape is left with rotting corpses of misinformation and wrongdoing. 

It’s a grim picture, but all hope is not lost. These things are not actually true, and this described shadow of doubt can be cast away with the thing that chases away darkness – sunshine and light. Let me explain the function of journalism.

Flash back to the late 1700s, where the signing of the Constitution of the United States established our system of government. The Founding Fathers wrote essays, pamphlets and speeches for years trying to hit the mark of what would make a workable institution of government. 

The Constitution created a system of checks and balances with three branches of the American federal government: the executive branch of the president and his or her squad, the legislative branch of Congress, which is the House and Senate and the judicial branch of courts, which is the Supreme Court and other federal courts.

These branches are all about the laws that govern the people. Congress makes the laws, the president carries out and enforces the laws, and the courts interpret and apply the laws to individual cases. 

But there’s something missing from these three branches, something vital to the heartbeat of America, and that’s the people, an entire unofficial branch of its own. The people are the branch that opens up government and lawmaking to everyone, dispelling tyranny through giving everyone a voice.  

The news media makes the fourth branch function, and maintaining trust is essential to that function. Taking away that trust by calling everything “fake news” is one way of stripping the people of their power. It is a tactic that robs every citizen of the voice and say-so that can make the other three branches tremble in their boots. 

We experience the fourth branch of government much stronger today than we did in the past, because our methods of communication are so easy and accessible. Allowing anyone to make a headline and claim it as news, having your own newsfeed and the tantalizing temptation of pushing that post button on everything that seems attention grabbing or slanderous, along with the ability to create a website and make a buck from pageview traffic, has left us in this foul-smelling landscape of distrust. Real news is meant to dispel fear, not create it. 

So listen, even journalists make mistakes. A professor of mine in college, Leon Alligood, once shared with my reporting class that “the newspaper is the first rough draft of history.” The difference between real and fake news is that real news will correct itself. We’ll own up to something if we get it wrong and make it right. Fake news will just go on being fake. 

So what can you do in this media landscape rife with pitfalls? Only trust sources you know. Subscribe to a real newspaper, and get engaged in your community. You’ll be able to spot fake news before you know it.  

Sinclaire Sparkman is The Democrat’s news editor. Email her at ssparkman@lebanondemocrat.com and follow her on Twitter @wilsoncoreports.

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