Don’t let anti-free press ‘fake news’ campaign taint trust in community news

“Not for a letter to the editor,” was how the email started. The writer didn’t want his views to go out publicly, but did want to let me know that he has lived in Washougal for 43 years and that “local members of the community” believe The Post-Record has “taken on a Vancouver and even a Portland image.”

It was the middle of a very long deadline cycle, I’d been sitting in front of a computer for nine straight hours and I was exhausted. I didn’t want to respond. What I really wanted to do was drive home and see my daughter before getting ready for bed and waking up early to do it all over again.

Instead, I remembered the faces of the middle school students I’d spoken to at Jemtegaard Middle School’s Career Day earlier that week. Only a smattering of them had even heard of The Post-Record, much alone read it. All had heard the term “fake news,” though.

So, instead of heading home, I let my reporter instincts take over and responded with as much information as possible.

“The majority of our news coverage is hyper-local, covering only Camas-Washougal area people, businesses and events,” I told him. “The editorials, likewise, mostly focus on current issues happening in Camas or Washougal city councils or school districts. In the most recent, we focused on a Camas business, a Camas Little League coach who helped save a Washougal teen and Camas City Council issues.”

In the issue I was pulling together that day (the issue you’re reading right now), 100 percent of the stories are devoted to news from Camas, Washougal and the region’s Columbia River Gorge.

Camas and Washougal are lucky to have their own community newspaper. So many smaller newspapers perished, or were snapped up by national chains, after the Recession of 2008. Having a local paper, even a small one like The Post-Record, covering things like city councils, school districts and local police departments, makes a huge difference between living in an informed, engaged community and living in a place where no one really knows what’s going on. Or, worse, won’t believe the facts when they’re right in front of their own eyes.

We live in a time when media throughout the United States is under attack — The Committee to Protect Journalists named Donald Trump the world’s “No. 1 Oppressor of Press Freedom” this year, and our nation fell to 45th place, below places like Ghana, Romania and Taiwan, on the 2018 World Press Freedom list, with international journalism groups concluding: “The violent anti-press rhetoric from the highest level of the U.S. government has been coupled with an increase in the number of press freedom violations at the local level as journalists run the risk of arrest for covering protests or simply attempting to ask public officials questions. Reporters have even been subject to physical assault while on the job.”

As people start to cry “fake news” more and more, something scary seems to be filtering down to a local community news level. People are starting to tag local newspapers with a “fake news” or untrustworthy label, but can never point out what exactly they think is “fake” about the story. Sometimes, they cry “fake!” having never even read the story. And young people, who often can’t tell the difference between an online advertisement and a news story, are extremely susceptible to this kind of behavior. They could grow up believing a meme on Instagram over a newspaper article that took 20 hours to research and write.

I urged the email writer to read the newspaper with fresh eyes and count the number of local stories and locally focused editorials we write. The good news? He wrote back and wished me a good rest of the week — and said he would read with new eyes.

To anyone out there who is starting to believe the “fake news” propaganda, I urge you to read this newspaper with fresh eyes and count our local stories featuring people you know and (maybe) trust.

I would also urge you to remember the words of U.S. Sen. John McCain, who said in February 2017: “If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”