Jon K. Rust
A column from the publisher of a small daily newspaper in Missouri shows how dangerous "fake news" can be, and how important it is for publications to safeguard their reputation with the public.

Last week, a man posted on Facebook a link to a story purporting to be from the Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau. The poster used the paper's logo and aped its online layout, and even used real names from a local hospital in a story that said the first local case of covid-19 had been confirmed. The man styles himself a prankster, but his actions were "an irresponsible fraud," writes Publisher Jon K. Rust. "What he did was like yelling 'fire' in a crowded movie theater.

Newspaper staffers were forced to escalate how they dealt with the fake story as it gained steam overnight. The post disappeared the next day after a Southeast Missourian article quoted Rust's threat to contact law enforcement and file suit. Rust later learned from local and federal authorities that the prankster had once held a part-time overnight job at the newspaper and had been fired.

"At some point, some semblance of the fake post is likely to become true. Southeast Missouri will, in fact, have its first covid-19 case," Rust writes. "But when dealing with sensitive information like this, it's important that the reporting is accurate. Knowledge is one way to maintain a sense of control in today's uncertain world. When credible sources are maligned or falsely diminished, it undercuts social cohesion. It is vital to you, our community and our democracy that you can trust our reporting. We take that responsibility seriously. Who knows what the motivation of many who post on Facebook is. Do you really know what's fake?"

Or, as we like to say, people need to understand the difference in news media and social media. News media pay for journalism, which practices a discipline of verification and emphasizes fact. Social media have no discipline and no verification, and emphasize opinion. That message needs to be repeated, now more than ever.