The Fake News Fight: How and Why We Got Here

“More Americans have a negative (43 percent) than a positive (33 percent) view of the news media.”

“Forty-four percent say they can think of a news source that reports the news objectively.”

“Four in 10 Republicans consider accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light to always be ‘fake news.’”

These were just a few of the factoids compiled by Gallup and the Knight Foundation in a recent joint poll that formed the basis for the Washington Post’s Jan. 23 panel event, “Americans & the Media: Sorting Fact from Fake News.”

The fake news epidemic has permeated the journalism industry, due in part to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent election.

Whether flashing on a screen as the audience took its seats or alluded to in the aforementioned poll, journalism and polling pundits joined the discussion not to sit in opposition to the Republican Party, but to educate the public on how Americans feel about the role of the press in the aftermath of Trump’s victory.

The news glut

Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief at Gallup, Inc., delved into some of the survey findings.

“The American public does believe that the news media is important to democracy,” he said. “When you put the critical and very important together, Americans do in fact believe the media is very important to democracy.”  Eighty-four percent of respondents answered with either critical or very important in response to that question about the media’s relationship with democracy.

“The not-so-good news is what’s on the other side,” Newport continued. “When we asked Americans about the news media today, you can see a more negative response.” Sixty-nine percent of Republicans said that the news media was supporting democracy poorly, compared to just 47 percent of Independents and 17 percent of Democrats.

After Washington Post Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan completed her interview with Newport and Jennifer Preston of the Knight Foundation, Chief Correspondent Dan Balz brought on stage two longtime Washington anchors to discuss their impressions of news in the Trump era: Judy Woodruff, anchor and managing editor of “PBS NewsHour,” and Bret Baier, chief political anchor at Fox News.

“People say they do take in news from all sides of the spectrum,” Woodruff said, “but I think so much of what’s going on today is a gravitating toward news that reinforces your own views. I don’t think that’s everybody, but I think that’s happening more and more. And when that happens, there’s less trust.

“We swim in a sea of news, we are surrounded by news, and it is hard,” she continued. “I have sympathy for American citizens who are trying to understand what’s going on.”

Baier acknowledged Trump’s favoritism toward Fox News, especially since his inauguration, but he took the opportunity to make a clear distinction between his show “Special Report” and commentary shows like “Fox and Friends” and “Hannity.”

“The problem, sometimes, is that Fox gets painted with a broad brush,” Baier argued. “And Sean Hannity’s show is not ‘Special Report’. I think Sean Hannity, his opinion, what he does an amazing job with bringing toward his thoughts on things, similar to an opinion page of a newspaper that has their opinions.

“But you know what you’re watching,” Baier said. “You know what you’re reading.”

Separating fiction and fact

The third panel was moderated by The Washington Post’s Politics and Accountability Anchor Libby Casey. It brought together Stephen Hayes, editor-in-chief of of The Weekly Standard, Indira Lakshmanan of the Poynter Institute and Boston Globe, and White House Correspondent April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks.

Casey led a discussion that centered around asking how reporters can rebuild trust in the media among their audiences.

Lakshmanan felt it was important to begin the conversation by noting that trust in the media has steadily risen since its all-time low in September 2016, just two months before Trump was elected. She felt the distinction between trust in the “media” was also an overly broad term, and that the term “media” doesn’t just encompass journalists, but platforms like Facebook and Twitter, too.

April Ryan opined, in a reversal of Baier’s point, that the line between fact and opinion has been obscured. “We also understand that it’s not just two sides of a story anymore,” she added. “It’s all sides of a story.”

Hayes, who admitted to having more of a libertarian mindset, said that in his work at the conservative-leaning Weekly Standard, he doesn’t just want readers that agree with his and his publication’s perspective. At the same time, though, he emphasized that the facts must come first.

When Casey alluded back to the 4-in-10 figure that Republicans consider anything attacking a politician to be “fake news,” Hayes commented that the issue isn’t just among conservatives distrusting liberal outlets.

“We get this at The Weekly Standard,” Hayes said. “People don’t want to hear it. You can show a video — I’ve literally had cases where I’ve shown people a video of President Trump saying something. It’s a video. He said these things. And they will deny that it happened.”

Trump steals the media’s thunder

Newly minted Washington Post Media Reporter Sarah Ellison conducted the final panel, which was about social media platforms and their role in perpetuating fake news.

Her guests were Nuala O’Connor, the president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, New York University Professor Jay Rosen and BuzzFeed News Media Editor Craig Silverman, the man behind the term “fake news.”

Silverman spoke at length early on, explaining his take on Facebook’s new policies on media sharing. He shared his belief that Facebook was targeting outlying groups sharing fake information, but he also sees smaller news organizations suffering as well.

While at the dais, though, Silverman clarified his intentions for the term “fake news” when he originally coined it.

“Initially, there were three components to what I thought was ‘fake news,’” he said. “So one is that it had to be completely false … intended to deceive … and then the third thing, for me, was that it was financially driven.”

When the conversation shifted to social media acting as a purveyor of news, Ellison asked Rosen about what kind of jobs news organizations were doing in being the biggest purveyor for Trump getting exposure.

“The traditional relationship between story and press doesn’t apply here, for a number of reasons,” Rosen said. “It’s useful to think of Trump as a competing organization to your media organization. It’s not just a story to cover. He’s trying to take away your audience, your space.

“He became, over the course of the campaign, a ratings powerhouse,” Rosen added. “What that did was make him a more successful producer of what’s on NBC than the journalists at NBC.”

No easy answers

Nuala O’Connor brought the discussion back full circle to some of the findings of the Gallup/Knight Foundation poll. “You do worry about people seeing more of what they agreed with,” she said.

Rosen agreed, expanding by pointing out the hypocrisy in the news organizations the White House routinely attacks yet relies on for news, calling the trend “not sustainable.”

Ellison abruptly ended the event after it went nearly 30 minutes beyond its initial block. The ending, though, was fitting, as it embodied the current state of the media in its fight with the White House.

The Gallup/Knight Foundation poll numbers show alarming trends, but they don’t provide much closure or a simple solution. Journalists will have to keep fighting and reporting until they can resolve the fake news fiasco themselves.

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