How Do You Know ELi Isn’t Fake News?

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Friday, December 16, 2016, 8:47 am
Alice Dreger, Publisher

ELi is small, local, nonprofit, public-service oriented, and transparent, so it never occurred to me people might think we produce “fake news.” Believe it or not, in the last few weeks we have been subject to this criticism, albeit relatively gently. One local political consultant has been pushing the idea that we’re not really a news site, but an “amateur blog.”

I’m guessing I don’t have to explain to you why a local political consultant might want to undermine our reputation.

So, let me be clear: ELi is not a blog. I have had many blogs of my own (for example, at my personal website) and I’ve blogged by invitation for various sites, like Psychology Today. Blogging is pretty simple. You have an idea and you blab about it for a few hundred words. You throw in some hotlinks. It generally doesn’t pass by an editor. When you’re done, you hit “publish,” and there it is.

By contrast, ELi has a policy by which every article passes by at least one editor who checks it against our standards of nonpartisanship, accuracy, and clarity. You, dear reader, don’t see how many sentences, paragraphs, and articles we either revise or outright kill because they don’t meet our standards. Believe me, it’s a lot. I myself have had several articles that I’ve reported and written killed by our Managing Editor Ann Nichols because, as a whole, those articles have not met our standards. (I’ve always accepted her decisions; Ann is pretty astoundingly good at her job, and I’m not so stupid that I don’t appreciate that.)

Our stance of nonpartisan reporting doesn’t just refer to not supporting one political party; let’s face it, this is a one-party town, and that’s not where partisanship rears its head. Our nonpartisan position refers to not promoting one point of view on a divided political issue.

We don’t always go to great lengths to seek someone on every side of an issue, because false “balance” is a form of inaccuracy. So, for example, when we covered the local vigil for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, we didn’t try to seek out someone local who thought it was good that gay people had been mass-murdered. But we do try hard, if we are picking up on real disagreement in town on an issue, to present that.

Yes, I have opinions. Ann has opinions. We all have opinions. But we get that ELi is not where those belong. We take really seriously our fiduciary responsible to be the news site you can trust for news about East Lansing. We take seriously that we need to be the place where you can go to find out what’s going on without feeling like someone is trying to pull you into their tent. In fact, we take nonpartisanship so seriously, Ann and I often find ourselves personally changing opinions, because we’ve had to look for and bring you more information and more ideas than anyone had previously put together.

We do sometimes have to make editorial decisions. For example, we have to decide if a story should be covered at ELi at all. We did that recently, for example, when Eliot Singer contacted me to let me know the latest on lawsuits involving the former and current owners of the Park District properties. As the person who would have done that reporting, I decided in collaboration with Ann as Managing Editor that this news was unlikely to matter to most ELi readers; the lawsuits were complicated and seemed unlikely to change where the project is going. If it turned out that it was looking like the lawsuits were going to have a real impact on the redevelopment plans, we would have reported that. But it looked like that would not be the case. (As it turns out, we were right. The lawsuits all just evaporated this week.)

Unlike blogs, we fact-check what we publish before it is published. When an ELi reporter attributes a claim to someone but doesn’t make clear in what context the person made the claim, we figure out where the reporter got it, make sure it counts as “fair use” (that it was not said in private), and we make the sourcing clear. When we interview people, we either record the interview or check back on the quotes to make sure we have them right. This is a major reason why people keep talking to us; they trust us.

To make sure we get things right, we sometimes use a kind of distributed editing system, in which we run drafts past multiple knowledgeable people. Some of our articles have had as many as seven people read them before they become public. While it frustrates us sometimes when another news outlet beats us to reporting a big story, we believe firmly in getting the story right rather than bringing it to you first.

Some people say ELi is not reliable because we sometimes run corrections. That cracks me up! That we run corrections is proof you can count on us to be reliable! Do I enjoy having to run a correction? No; it usually means we screwed something up. But it’s our job to get it right, even if that means we have to do it in the second pass and eat crow.

Okay, so ELi is not a blog. Is it “amateur,” as that political consultant says about us?

It’s true that Ann, I, and most of our reporters are not formally trained as journalists. But at ELi, we take very seriously the ethics of professional journalism, as you can see from what I’ve explained above. And Ann and I are not exactly untrained in relevant fields.

I’m an historian with a Ph.D. and I have had my work published in such outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, New Statesman, WIRED, The Guardian, The L.A. Times, and The Chicago Tribune. I have also published long-form, peer-reviewed, investigative histories of scientific controversies (some of which have given me a fair bit of experience with the Freedom of Information Act). Ann has a J.D. and often uses her legal background to help explicate and explain lawsuits, proposed laws, and criminal investigations to our readers. She is also a nationally-published writer (for, like, money that they pay her).

Some of our reporters have formal training in journalism. Our chief Schools reporter, Karessa Wheeler, has a degree in journalism, and it shows in how well and quickly she can bring us news from East Lansing School Board meetings. Karessa has told us that ELi has “restored her faith in journalism.”

And she’s not the only professional journalist who feels good about our work. When professional journalists look at what we’re producing at ELi, they consistently tell us they’re impressed with how we’ve taken the citizen-journalism model and held it to the high standards of traditional journalism. We’ve never had any question in our minds that that’s the right way to approach this work—to build trust through consistent attention to facts and our public service mission, to use a model that avoids the problems that come with the click-bait economy of news.

To state what is obvious to everyone who knows our finances, we aren’t doing this for money. Everybody who works for ELi—from our Board members to our tech managers to our reporters to our calendar editors to our volunteer fundraisers—does it because they believe that East Lansing is better off with a reliable news source. The people who get it get really excited by it, because they see how it matters.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: East Lansing is an unusual town—it’s smallish yet houses a big university; it’s diverse in unexpected ways; it’s full of smart people—but I think what we’re doing here is setting a national model for towns all over this country to recreate local news systems that have been lost to the economy of the internet.

If this matters to you, please right now step up to keep this thing going. Because in spite of all our hard work, the person living next to you might not think we’re real. Or he might get that we are so real—so good at our nonpartisan public service mission—he’s just as happy to see us go away.

Check out all your neighbors who have already stepped up to help.


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