Note: This essay originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Commentary section on Feb. 5, 2017.
By Bill Farrar Director of Public Policy & Communications

Let’s get this out of the way: “Fake news” is free speech.

The ACLU of Virginia would defend the right of anyone to publish it, as it also does the right to expression of satirists, artists of all stripes, political extremists, pornographers, and serious journalists.

That means, with regard to the First Amendment, buyer beware rules the day. In our current state of national devolution, we might crudely identify three types of buyers with regard to consumption of news and information.

There are those who seem able to discern between various sources, determine which are credible, and then analyze the information they obtain against their pre-existing knowledge, values, attitudes, beliefs, and biases.
There are those who are understandably confused. “Fake news” and the new presidential administration’s embrace of “alternate facts” easily can exhaust one’s practical ability to get to the truth.

Then there are those who are beyond active denial. They accept lies that correspond to their opinions regardless of provable information to the contrary. That’s absurd.

It is hard to stay well-informed. It takes time and a strong emotional and intellectual constitution to keep up with and understand the unprecedented, whiplash events of this time in history. It is also, however, necessary. No one has the luxury of looking away.

So, what media can you trust? You can and should trust real journalists who abide by the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics. The cornerstones of the SPJ code are pursuit of truth, minimizing harm as a result of journalists’ actions, independence, and transparency and accountability.

That all sounds pretty good. The difficulty is membership in SPJ and adherence to its code are entirely voluntary. There is no tie between established ethics and any form of certification or licensure as there is for, say, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and engineers, all of which have licensure and a toothy code of ethics. Break it and you could lose your right to practice.

Since licensing journalists would be an unconstitutional restriction on free speech, anyone with a Blogspot account and a $4 domain name is free to call themselves one. It’s up to you, the buyer, to beware of shady peddlers of misinformation and ask your favorite media outlets what ethical standards they conform to. If they come up blank, get your information elsewhere.