By Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

I like to say that every American has the First Amendment right to commit journalism. The verb is instructive; if you're going to represent a writing as journalism, there are some basic news-media rules you should follow, such as accuracy, verification and fairness. But why shouldn't those rules, or at least their spirit, apply to social media?

Many people fail to distinguish between news media (which emphasize fact and practice a discipline of verification) and social media (which have no discipline, no verification and emphasize opinion), and the lines have blurred between fact and opinion, so we think it's important for journalists to frequently remind readers of those distinctions. The Advocate-Messenger of Danville, Ky., did some of that with an editorial that started with recommending a new year's resolution, from a Facebook post: “In 2020, we’re going to read the article before we share it.”

"We’ve all probably been guilty of it at one time or another," the editorial acknowledges. "We read the headline, even the first couple paragraphs of an article and decide it’s something worth sharing. Later, we realize it’s not an accurate or reliable article; or maybe it’s based on fact but is misleading; or perhaps it’s an old article from several years ago. If we haven’t done it ourselves, we’ve surely seen our friends on social media do it a time or two. . . . It can be disheartening to see our friends fall prey to the trolls on the internet who want to spread lies and 'fake news'."

The editorial offers other advice "on how to be a more conscious about what you share and how to decipher if what you are reading is reputable," such as considering the source, consulting reliable online fact checkers, and seeking the same news from other sources.

"Users need to make sure the information they are absorbing and then disseminating is accurate," the editorial concludes. "Be mindful in the new year. Resolve to be a more responsible news consumer and sharer."