BY ANALISA TROFIMUK
Two crucial ideals have carried reporters through years of the constantly changing field of journalism.
The Associated Press’ Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Michael Tackett has worked for widely circulated publications including the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. He says that the journalism industry has gone through major shifts since he first entered the field over three decades ago, but that the business still runs on accurate, fact-based reporting.
But in 2021, fighting for accuracy can be a vicious cycle for reporters feeling a constant need to update their stories.
“When I started in the business, there was sort of a time certain when the day was over,” said Tackett. “Now, there’s never a time certain when the day is over, because you can publish continuously 24/7.”
Which can be a good or bad thing. Tackett says the need to always be engaged in stories and the most recent updates does not give reporters time to digest their work.
“It doesn’t always allow for as much reflection as one would like, sometimes it calls for too much reaction,” he said. “I think the more reflection and the less reaction we can put on our stories, the better off we are.”
Reflecting on stories is particularly pertinent when covering politics. Although Tackett earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from Indiana University in Bloomington, he says he never dreamed he would’ve had a future in political reporting. He unintentionally fell into it, covering his first presidential election in 1988 for the Chicago Tribune.
After covering roughly eight presidential elections, Tackett has learned a thing or two. “You don’t have to engage in everything. If you engage on social media, I would do it in the context of something that advances one of your stories, not something that advances one of your opinions,” he said.
Refraining from reporting personal biases can be a challenge for all journalists, but especially those just entering the field. Tackett’s tips are to stick to the facts and make stories authoritative.
“If you know that a state is traditionally Democratic, say it’s a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican since year ‘x’,” Tackett said. And when in doubt of any one fact, no matter how small, leave it out. Misinformation seems to spread faster than facts, which Tackett quickly learned when covering the 2016 Presidential Election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. When former President Trump made claims that were demonstrably false according to Tackett, it took a special type of reporting.
“If he said, ‘we all know the election was stolen’ you could say, ‘Trump falsely said we all know the election was stolen’ and then buttress that with ‘his attorney general, more than 60 courts, in every major election audit showed it wasn’t stolen’,” the journalist said.
It is important to recognize that not everyone will believe what reporters write even when presented with an “avalanche of facts.” But the idea of misinformation spreading faster than the truth is not new. Tackett pointed to Mark Twain, who wrote about this same concept long before the existence of social media.
“A rumor goes halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on,” said Tackett quoting Twain. “He said that in the 1800s.”
Sticking to the facts and taking time to reflect are two of Tackett’s pieces of advice for all journalists, not just young reporters.
“Journalism needs people who will practice journalism and not practice misinformation and disinformation,” Tackett said. “Misinformation and disinformation are just true threats to not only the profession of journalism, but to civil society and to democratic living.”