As President Donald Trump and his staff continue verbal attacks on journalists as “enemies of the people,” and deride their work as “fake news,” graduation ceremonies at my university are sending enthusiastic young reporters into newsrooms for their first jobs. At the same time, our underclass journalism majors are starting important summer internships, to sharpen their skills and hopefully feed their dedication to this work that is vital to an informed public and a vibrant American democracy.
During the past academic year, whenever Trump applied the phrase “fake news” to critical but accurate reporting, I told my students how much I wish the president could come to our class and learn what journalism educators like me teach.
In my classes, “fake news” is not tolerated: Every article with a factual error earns an automatic F. A proper name misspelled? F again. A regular word misspelled? Automatic C. Far from being some singular, sadistic tormentor of would-be reporters, I’ve enforced the rigorous standards that my colleagues across the nation have taught for decades. I didn’t invent this exactitude — I use it because it works.
A legendary journalism educator at my school, Willard E. Lally, once hammered this mantra in the classroom: “Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy.” Lally died in November, but this motto, said to be coined by Joseph Pulitzer, lives on in classrooms and newsrooms everywhere.
It’s been a tough year in journalism classes. In September, we spent a lot of time talking about the senseless slaying of five employees at the Capital Gazette — the Annapolis, Md., newspaper where I once worked as an intern. Just a few months later, class discussion turned to the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey. This spring, an international press freedom organization found that the United States is an increasingly “problematic” place for journalists to work, with threats and violence on the rise. I tell my students they must always be brave, but today also careful about their safety when necessary.
If Trump could visit my journalism classes, he would see these hardworking students come from a wide array of backgrounds, experiences, and political influences. These are young women and men who care about their community and want to truthfully tell its many stories.
Of course, journalism — much like governing or diplomacy or business — is not immune from error. Journalism educators like me emphasize that when errors are made, ethical journalists own up to them, apologize, and correct the record, because mistakes fuel misinformation and mistrust.
In the end, journalism’s devotion to accuracy is not just a mantra. It is a promise to citizens that they can rely on the news that journalists provide. Contrary to the numerous commentators and pundits who aim to persuade, journalists seek the truth in order to inform the public.
I believe it is time for the president to end his sweeping attacks on journalism and the nonsensical use of the term “fake news” for accurate reporting that he simply doesn’t like. Instead, I invite him to please come to my journalism class. Meet my students, America’s future reporters. I suspect he’d actually enjoy speaking with them and answering their questions. I believe he would learn something: that these aspiring journalists are not the “enemy” but are instead a deeply committed part of America’s future.