Not even three months into the new administration in Washington, already the American press corps has been painted with a barrage of scarlet letters from the highest levels of government: fake, liars, enemies of the American people.
Journalists in business-to-business (B2B) media may look on with some feeling of comfort and separation as the big-metro newspapers, national cable TV networks and the political and ideological websites bear the brunt of the pillorying. B2B editors and writers — our work grounded in quantitative industry data, technical expertise and access to the business community — may be tempted to conclude that we’re immune from the attack on journalism. History tells us that we should not.
To a degree that most of us never thought possible, large segments of the American population are being successfully conditioned to accepts facts only if they are self-serving or at least reinforce their world view. What if the facts pose a challenge to those beliefs? That’s OK! They can be countered with “alternative facts.”
Make no mistake, that problem is deepening. Now, news professionals who focus on the “fact” facts instead of the alternative facts are ridiculed as the fake, corrupt messengers.
For many, this threat crystalized on the night of Nov. 8, 2016, when the nation learned the result of its presidential election. The very next day, our partners at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies offered a sobering roadmap for a way forward. Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride rallied the profession with a clarion call for journalists to work harder, tell stories and involve the audience in holding the powerful accountable.
Just as much as the White House press corps, B2B journalists would be wise to heed those words.
In the current environment, it may be easy to forget that defending the profession while serving the public interest is supposed to be a nonpartisan endeavor. Sure, President Trump is going to be an obvious target. In January, ASBPE signed a letter with more than 60 other news organizations to pressure the Trump administration into preserving news reporters’ access to government officials and not shredding the Freedom of Information Act process. But remember that ASBPE and the sister journalism groups similarly took on the Obama administration in 2013 over mostly related concerns about transparency and access.
If you think B2B publications would be unlikely targets of a regime at war with the press, think again.
Many B2B publications rely at least partially on regulatory news to serve their industries, and we usually must pay keener attention to the government documents than the popular media because our subscribers rely on us to keep them informed about their livelihoods. Andy Kowl and our friends at the BoSacks media intelligence e-newsletter recently reminded us all that trade magazines can be and have been menaced and even shut down by our government.
As we have already seen during the fledgling presidential administration, even a threat (or tweet) from the president can be enough of a catalyst for certain groups to change their own behavior. Companies emphasize that they are creating jobs in the United States instead of abroad. Defense contractors drop the price of already-contracted materiel. Countries pledge more money to fund our military alliances. The president has suggested initiating measures to stifle journalists, such as reform of libel laws. He may never need to lift a finger to do so if news outlets make choices to self-censor.
The White House’s campaign to discredit legitimate news has become so severe that the Committee to Protect Journalists, which usually devotes its resources to waging battle against the world’s harshest regimes that kill, jail and intimidate news personnel, now needs to spend time alerting us to abuses in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, a stalwart democracy that highlighted press freedom as priority No. 1 in its Bill of Rights.
The CPJ warns that branding accurate journalism with the “fake news” label can bring us all one step closer to the formal erosion of press freedoms – or at least nourishes the self-doubt that is the gateway to self-censorship.
If you are already encountering such delegitimizing insults on your B2B beat, or if your publication is getting lured into self-censorship, we want you to know that you don’t have to endure this alone. The “fake news” challenge and other threats certainly will be hot topics during the next ASBPE Ethics Chat on Friday, April 21.
Our ethics committee is always ready to listen to your crisis and confidentially suggest options. The panel’s next newsletter, coming soon to your in-box, will provide additional information to help you tackle “fake news” and other issues of trustworthiness. The ASBPE website offers ethics advisories, updates and a guide to best practices.
For additional fellowship with the nation’s B2B editorial leadership, join us at ASBPE’s 2017 B2B Media Success Conference on May 18 at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The time is now to join us and get involved. Do not be complacent.
Hand-in-hand with our demand that journalists’ rights be respected on behalf of the public interest is our own devotion to steadfast ethics, diligent information-gathering and an ever-alert quest for fairness. And, last but maybe not least, guts. I mean the guts not only to flesh out the truth in a hostile atmosphere, but also to follow the facts wherever they lead – even if they ultimately lend support to a person or idea that we otherwise would consider objectionable.
The truth is, our subscribers are paying us to perform with diligence and guts on their behalf.
Dom Yanchunas is a New York-based business journalist and vice president of ASBPE, the American Society of Business Publication Editors. To join the conversation, check out @ASBPE on Twitter or visit the Ethics section of our website, asbpe.org. If you’re not an ASBPE member, why not join today? It’s free!