News: A report of recent events; previously unknown information. – Merriam Webster Dictionary
As news goes, 2017 was a blockbuster.
Nationally, the mass killings, hurricanes and sexual abuse scandals shocked our consciousness and dominated the news cycles.
In South Dakota, we generally avoided such stories, but we still had our share of noteworthy events. The Legion Lake fire was the most recent, but the drought, the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy, and political bickering over alleged government corruption also riveted our attention.
Nearly lost in all of this was the significant setback for a major news organization during a legal battle in Union County.
ABC News, though not admitting guilt in court, paid a settlement of millions of dollars to Beef Products Inc. for calling finely textured beef “pink slime.”
The term, used repeatedly by ABC to describe a safe product used in 70 percent of supermarket ground beef, cast a dark shadow on BPI, which is why the company sued for defamation.
Few words would be more distasteful or damaging to a food product, but ABC put up a legal fight – for awhile – then settled out of court costing the Disney-owned news organization $170 million.
By settling, ABC cut its losses. BPI fairly claimed that “pink slime” defamed the company and its product, costing it millions in revenues, hundreds of employee layoffs, and plant closures.
The case came at a time when another term, “fake news,” was receiving a lot of attention. Other news organizations besides ABC were embarrassed in 2017 by reporting false or inaccurate stories, including CNN. However, any reporter can make a mistake, which is different from the definition of fake news: information that is false or misleading with the intent of harming an individual or organization. The information often is portrayed as “news” though by definition it is not.
The lesson for news organizations in the aftermath of the ABC payout is that reporting must be careful and fair. These are not new standards.
However, with the explosion of the Internet and digital platforms, news and information are no longer conveyed just by bona fide news organizations and trained reporters. Information, fake and otherwise, bombards us daily and some of it is cloaked in anonymity, making accountability often difficult if not impossible.
As the present year unfolds – and it is an election year – the consumer of news will have to be more wary than ever of where “news” is originating in order to be factually informed.
If that sounds like a tall order, it is. And getting taller each day.
Jan. 3, 2018