Many people have raised concerns about the surging scourge of fake news. In response, though, the bulk of worthless advice proffered ranges from anti-First Amendment censorship to overly simplistic mantras, such as telling folks “don’t be stupid.”

A much less defensive approach is to simply refocus discussions about news credibility on already well-established journalistic ideology: be accurate, verify information, be independent, be fair and impartial, do no harm, be accountable.

Like telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, real journalists embody all of those ideals, all of the time. Fake journalists don’t.

Audiences should transparently be able to know who does what and how. Discernment then could be based on adherence to a plainspoken documentation of philosophies, principles and best practices, such as the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Hawaii media, in general, do not provide such transparency or consistency, and such opaqueness degrades public trust in the Fourth Estate here.

Voluntarily using a code of honor as a binding agreement with audiences clearly and completely separates authentic news sources from the pretenders, such as Project Veritas, Breitbart News or Citizens United.

From this perspective, The New York Times shouldn’t have to endlessly defend against baseless charges of “fake news,” because the record and evidence clearly shows it is not. The New York Times has won more Pulitzer prizes than any other news organization for many good reasons, illustrated in strict adherence to its code of standards and ethics.

Uncertainty about what is real news threatens our shared reality. If we really can no longer believe in any common media source, like The New York Times, of The Washington Post or CNN, then we no longer can share the same objective sense of public space in our highly mediated existences. Instead, we are doomed to contemptuously coexist in paradoxical and ultra-partisan parallel universes.

From a code of ethics perspective, Breitbart and its ilk would be forced to strive upward to prove that they were worthy enough as journalists to be taken seriously, instead of just being adept at maliciously tearing down others to their subterranean levels. They also would be forced to publicly proclaim their policies and standards and follow an explicit and transparent code of conduct.

The legitimate news media needs to lead in this direction, fully taking that crucial step as well, as a way to re-separate themselves from the sordid sociopaths within the current “news” pack.

Searching For The Code

Fake news used to have a sort of comical and quaint side to it, when it was localized and technologically limited in reach. Mark Twain, for example, while working as a newspaper writer for the relatively low-circulation Territorial Enterprise in the 1860s, created an imaginary petrified man eternally “thumbing his nose in the wilds of Nevada.”

Twain’s fictitious account cost him journalistic credibility, of course, but fake news today – in an era of decentralized Internet networks, global social media and crass capitalism – truly imperils humanity.

The central debate here, about what specific tenets separate real journalists and interlopers, has been happening for more than a century. Because of our First Amendment, and common abuse in such systems around the world, licensing won’t work. But a commitment to a code of ethics, as a binding agreement between the media source and the audience, is the crumbled boundary edge that we all should be working on rebuilding.

To illustrate, I searched for “code of ethics” on the websites of Hawaii’s largest media sources – including Civil Beat, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, KHON2, KITV, Hawaii News Now, Honolulu Magazine and Hawaii Public Radio – and came up empty, when looking for any sort of persistent and overriding documentation about how these organizations defined their roles and news-gathering procedures in the state.

After trying a few other search approaches, and finding little of relevance, I gave up. While I might have missed something somewhere on these sites, the point I would offer here is that a code of ethics should be front and center, easily accessible and presented as a perpetual contract with the reader, viewer or listener.

In an ideal news environment, I shouldn’t have to look very hard for any of this material, and I should be able to refer to the code first, when I have questions about any parts of published works.

As an example of how to do this, I was able to locate Civil Beat’s publicly shared policies on anonymous sources and corrections, but no general code of conduct or commitment to an external code, such as SPJ’s. I suggest Civil Beat take the next step in this cause and either adhere to an existing code or publicly produce its own, either of which should be made available for readers under the About Us section of the website, or under its own heading.

The Star-Advertiser has a very thin public policy on corrections, articulated only as: The publication “strives to make its news report fair and accurate,” followed by contact information for the managing editor, Ed Lynch.

‘We Stand By The Story’ Isn’t Enough

Jim Wright, a reader who follows both Civil Beat and The Star-Advertiser, recently shared with me an email exchange he had with Lynch about a correction he requested from The Star-Advertiser. In short, he felt that the recent “Lone legislator snuffs foster care settlement” story, by Susan Essoyan, unfairly targeted House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke and identified her as the lone cause of a more complicated problem. Wright argued that Luke was just one participant in a long and layered legislative process, offering as evidence the documented progression of the bill, which includes the lengthy list of legislators who handled it, including Luke.

According to the email exchange shared by Wright, Lynch wrote back: “After reviewing your concerns, we stand by the story as printed. The decision to cut the funding was made by House Finance Chairwoman Luke and there was no public input on that decision.”

So I wrote to Lynch as well, to ask for clarification about the dismissal of Wright’s evidence and claims, which contradicted the tone and content of the story, and to ask if the piece ever was corrected. Lynch responded briefly to say that there indeed was no correction made, and to add, “We stand by the story.” When I tried to follow up to get more detail or insights on that decision or rationale, Lynch declined to return my email.

Without an explicit and public code of conduct to compare Lynch’s response against, despite Wright’s charge that the story was both unfair and inaccurate, we are left with an authoritarian dismissal of the allegations, rather than thoughtful and detailed public discourse about them.

The central debate here, about what specific tenets separate real journalists and interlopers, has been happening for more than a century.

Whether right or wrong about the merits of that particular case, the Star-Advertiser’s star chamber approach creates uncertainty about the fairness of the publication’s leaders and the potentially capricious nature of their decisions. If a reader of the Luke article were to lob a charge of “fake news” onto the Star-Advertiser, how could it defend itself in this case?

With a code of ethics in place and easily accessible to the reader, the response could be straightforward and clear. Readers could compare that response to the policy and decide for themselves. Without any of this support structure in place, though, we are left with a tight-lipped Lynch, with full power over the situation, defensively shutting the conversation down and alienating a reader.

For ethos to be restored in mass media, and to resplit the good from the bad in journalism, we need to know for certain specific answers to specific questions about the ways in which these local media organizations operate. I’d start with some of these: Does this journalism organization follow a specific code of ethics? How do we know that? Is that code different from the heavily vetted SPJ Code of Ethics? If so, how? And, if that code is in place, we next need to know the consequences of any noncompliance.

In other words, if someone within that organization breaks this kapu, what happens next? We shouldn’t be left guessing or, as some in the media-disenfranchisement business would contend, there really isn’t that much standing between a real news organization and a fake one.

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.