Golis: Why old-fashioned news reporting still matters

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Americans learned last week that they may be disappointed if they expect politicians to protect consumer privacy and slow the spread of fake news.

In questioning Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, members of Congress showed themselves to be stunningly ignorant of how technology is transforming the ways people exchange information — and how companies profit off those exchanges.

“How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service,” asked Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Zuckerberg: “Senator, we run ads.”

Hatch’s aides later insisted the exchange was taken out of context, but the dialogue came to symbolize the random and disjointed questions associated with what was called Zuckerberg’s apology tour.

“We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse,” Zuckerberg admitted in a conference call with reporters around the country. “That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, hate speech, in addition to developers and data privacy.”

No one offered a satisfactory explanation for why Zuckerberg and Facebook took so long to acknowledge their mistakes. Back in 2015, the company learned that a private consulting firm had harvested personal information from what would turn out to be 87 million people.

Later, the data would be used by the Trump campaign in attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. President Donald Trump, of course, is merely the most divisive president in memory.

For anyone who wanted to remain blissfully ignorant of Facebook’s intentions, this was not a good week. A New York Times tech writer, who described himself as an infrequent visitor to the site, discovered Facebook had downloaded his entire contacts list, which was then shared with more than 500 advertisers.

Whether Facebook was motivated by arrogance or naiveté (or both), what consumers learned contradicted years of high-flown rhetoric about the company’s aspirations to “bring the world closer together.”

In the beginning, consumers were told that technology would light the path to a new and more enlightened society, and we thought it would. Now we know that the information age is more complicated than that. A recent MIT study confirmed that false stories travel faster on the web than stories that turn out to be true.

Some now use technology to divide, deceive and malign. License has been granted to people who want to be unpleasant and unkind, and to people who seek opportunities to make stuff up.

In a new collection of essays, the Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson speaks to the time in which we live: “A society is moving towards dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest. How many times has history taught us this?”

While we lament the spread of fake news on the national scene, it should be worth a few minutes of our time to respect the dedication of the folks who engage in old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism.

As we mark the six-month anniversary of the devastating fires of last October, is there anyone who isn’t grateful for all this newspaper has done to inform readers about what happened and what’s being done in the aftermath of this catastrophe? In my experience, no news organization has done more in service to its community — even as reporters, editors and photographers dealt with the fires’ effects on their own lives and the lives of their families.

Name the subject. If you want to know about the evolution of the cannabis industry in Sonoma County, or district elections in Santa Rosa, or the progress of your favorite high school sports team, you’ll be finding out from your hometown newspaper.

Only through an independent press and old-fashioned reporting will we learn about the performance of government, insurance companies or public utilities. Only through an independent press and old-fashioned reporting will we learn of the heartache, courage and determination of people working to overcome the adversities.

Staff Writer Kevin McCallum reported last week that the Santa Rosa City Council approved a districting plan that is supposed to make local government representative of all the people who live here. Turns out, McCallum explained, the plan also is designed to protect incumbents — who happen to be “three middle-aged, white men.”

If you think you would have learned this information in a City Hall press release, you can count yourself as an optimist.

The rush of technology goes on. During a time of rapid change, news organizations continue their quest for business models that will sustain the gathering and distribution of information that people value.

News and commentary will be published on newsprint and online. News organizations will rely, too, on Facebook and Twitter to reach larger audiences.

It remains that reliable information can’t be free. There are costs associated with hiring professional journalists and the production teams that gather and report the news in your town.

The people who thrive on anger and division won’t care. They like it when fake news turns everything into a food fight.

The rest of us need to recognize that reliable information doesn’t fall out of the sky. If we don’t support quality journalism, we will soon discover that we lack the information we need to live successful lives and to manage successful communities.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

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