The term “fake news” triggers Americans across all political perspectives. That’s because what constitutes “fakery” lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder.
The problem with the term, of course, is it’s too simplistic: It suggests there’s “true” reporting and “false” reporting — and very little in between.
In reality, of course, there’s a spectrum of proper practices — objectivity, sourcing, context, balance, accuracy, etc. — that all go into the making of what we might characterize as an accurate news story.
All of which brings us to a fascinating case study in how a mainstream publication — in this case, the left-leaning, generally anti-farmer “Capital Times” in Madison, Wis. — hides behind its “press pass” credentials while actively perpetuating the worst myths about modern agriculture.
The expert source she provided was … herself. (President Lincoln once famously observed about attorneys, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” We wonder what he would say about the “journalist who uses herself as a source”?)
In the first two paragraphs, Ferral wrote the issue stems from “large-scale farmers and food processors.” There is no other mention of any other water use by any other category in framing the discussion.
Her third paragraph says “hydrologists and other conservationists said the wells are draining public water resources.” No sources are cited. No data supports the conjecture. And the use of the term “conservationists” suggests that large farmers and food companies, by the very nature of their existence, cannot also be concerned about conservation.
It is not until 24 paragraphs into the story — 24! — that Ferral tucks in this statistic: “Agricultural irrigation was 4 percent of the total 2.04 trillion gallons of water withdrawn in the state in 2015.”
So, just to be clear: Self-appointed water-use expert Ferral is claiming that 4 percent of the state’s water users are responsible for 100 percent of the problem. That fact alone discredits the 23 paragraphs that preceded it as well as the 17 that follow.
In layman’s terms, her “story” is an attempt to turn a “non-issue” into a statewide scandal.
Ferral’s official bio notes she serves as the newspaper’s “public affairs and investigative reporter” having previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review as well as state politics and government in North Carolina.
What’s missing in this resume is any experience in covering farming-related issues. In Wisconsin, farming infuses more than $88 billion annually into the economy. It is the financial backbone of the entire state economy. Asking a reporter who has essentially no agricultural experience to cover the sector would be like sending someone who has never driven a car to cover the Detroit auto industry in Michigan.
Ferral’s haphazard “coverage” of a critically important issue is a discouraging reminder of why the debate over media accuracy is so relevant today. Her story fails to live up to any professional standard of objectivity, sourcing, context, balance, accuracy, etc.
Does that make it “fake news”? That’s hard to gauge. We can safely say that we deserve more from our media as a whole, and we need to expect more from our journalists individually.