Critical consumption by news gatherers, and trustworthy, fact-checked reporting are more important than ever for local and mainstream news outlets.
More people are reading news online, where the volume of content is large, and the chance of encountering misinformation is abundant. Accusations of fake news from President Trump have become common on Twitter since the 2016 presidential election. In a news media climate saturated with alternative facts and fake news stories, some mainstream news outlets have seen a boost in subscriptions following the election.
The Washington Post was reported to see growth of 8 percent since the 2016 election. Mark Thompson, CEO of The New York Times Company said on CNBC that the company saw an increase of about 132,000 subscriptions within 18 days after Trump’s election.
“What we’re seeing, I think, is a public response to a certain kind of truthful journalism, which in an age of fake news, I think makes more and more sense,” Thompson said.
Local newspapers may not be experiencing the same type of growth.
Jill Jorden Spitz, Senior Editor at the Arizona Daily Star, said the Star has noticed a decline in Winter re-subscribers who made a point to tell circulation staff that they believe the paper prints fake news.
Spitz said she receives emails and calls from readers daily, and at least three or four times a week she will see or hear the term ‘fake news.’ The readers in contact with her are always referring to national stories about Trump, and never local news.
Spitz said, “one hundred percent, all of them” are conservative leaning readers who believe that the Star only publishes negative stories about Trump, or that they consider the news reported about Trump to be fake news.
“Most people who use that term, I don’t think they’re saying at the heart of it they believe the story is made up,” Spitz said. “I think it’s become shorthand for a story that they don’t agree with, so anything that doesn’t fit their worldview, they’re putting that label on.”
A study from the Columbia Journalism Review shows that during the election “Pro-Clinton audiences were highly attentive to traditional media outlets, which continued to be the most prominent outlets across the public sphere, alongside more left-oriented online sites. But pro-Trump audiences paid the majority of their attention to polarized outlets that have developed recently, many of them only since the 2008 election season.”
Spitz said that real, misinformed fake news is all over the internet, but it is exceedingly rare that these stories will make it into professional journalistic publications. Established news companies that issue corrections, have transparent reporting processes and employ actual journalists do not often publish false information.
Historically, fake news might have been the targeted, intentional false reporting of events for some type of gain. Examples of these stories are akin to a fisherman’s tale, or even parietal art that exaggerates the size of the day’s catch, to promote an elevated status within a community. However, lying about the size of the fish you caught, isn’t as dangerous as accusing politicians of running a child sex ring at a Washington D.C. pizzeria.
The “Pizzagate” story is an example of fake news becoming a serious, life threatening issue. Infowars, a notoriously right wing media company that publishes conspiracy theories alongside news, speculated heavily during the Pizzagate lifespan. Alex Jones, talk show host and owner of Infowars published an apology for his commentary after the theory was repeatedly debunked.
The internet has allowed for quicker and broader dissemination of fake news, and social media only amplified the platform for news consumption. A survey from Pew Research Center conducted in early 2016 determined that 62 percent of Americans get news from social media. Of the 66 percent of U.S. adults who use Facebook, 44 percent of those get news from Facebook.
The increasing availability of news online parallels the opportunity for anyone to create online content and publish it as ‘news.’ The quest for truth and validity has become diluted by the availability of misinformed, or poorly reported information. Anyone with a keyboard can publish completely made up stories, without labeling them as fiction.
According to a Stanford Study published in March 2017, “Content can be related among users with no significant third party filtering, fact checking or editorial judgment. An individual user with no track record or reputation can in some cases reach as many readers as Fox News, CNN or The New York Times.”
Kate Kenski, professor in the UA Department of Communication and School of Government and Public Policy, said in an email, that in 2016, we saw the definition of fake news change. In previous election years, fake news meant satire in which people knew the source was fake. In 2016, the word fake “has been attached to sources with which one disagrees in an effort to undermine a source’s credibility, along with content that contains intentionally misleading information while looking authentic,” Kenski said.
Fake news through satire can lead to a skewed understanding of events, because people forget where they learned the information, and don’t recognize it as a joke.
“But at least satire doesn’t pretend to be journalism,” Kenski said.
Some satire is published as fake news, and shared with the intention of being digested and re-posted as real news. Finding truthful, fact-based news sources, is a responsibility for both news consumers and distributors. Facebook’s disputed news tool is an early attempt to help users filter through stories that have been repeatedly reported as false by other users. The stories may be reviewed by third-party fact checkers before being labeled as false.
Google unveiled a fact checking feature that will label stories in search results that have been determined as false by third-party fact checkers. Although these tools bring up first amendment issues, they may curb the sharing of fake news, which are not intended as satire.
Consumers of news will need to learn to filter stories they read on their own. The UA library created a guide on how to spot fake news. These eight practices encourage responsible and critical news media consumption. Fact checking can be done online through various independent websites like Snopes, PolitiFact and Factcheck.org.
Kenski said that humans have a proclivity toward confirmation bias, or the tendency to only believe information that aligns with their beliefs. To counter these biases, readers should gather news from both sides of the political spectrum and think about which politicians from opposing parties they find reasonable.
“Seek out their opinions on topics that you know you aren't going to agree with them on, take a deep breath, and try to understand where they are coming from," Kenski said. "It isn't easy, but it has two benefits. First, you will likely realize that you have respect for those with whom you disagree and can empathize, if not agree, with their arguments. Second, by listening to the most compelling and robust sources from the other side, you will strengthen your position and argumentation skills."
Consuming news from a variety of sources and thoughtfully digesting the information will fuel a more accurate dialogue about civic affairs.
Chris Segrin, head of the UA Department of Communication, said that deceptive communication is almost always deliberate, and lying or misinformation is usually provided for the benefit of the message sender.
“There’s no substitute for doing your homework, and knowing who is the message sender,” Segrin said. “What’s this person’s background, what’s their potential interest, what do they have to gain by convincing me of this message.”
Segrin said that reliable news sources are now more valuable than ever.
“If they’re trusted and they’re credible, and they have not let you down in the past, then you know you can hang your hat on them," he said.
David Cuillier, director of the UA School of Journalism, said Trump’s election has been a wake-up call for journalists and the public, resulting in broadened attention toward governmental policy.
“The best thing that’s happened for journalism is the Trump presidency,” Cuillier said.
Cuillier said that Trump calling news media the enemy of the American people is psychological warfare, and a way for the president to undermine the credibility of anyone who would question him, or hold governmental power accountable.
“It’s OK to criticize the media, a lot of it’s well founded, but what he’s doing takes it to a whole different level," he said. "Rhetoric that, frankly, dictators use to rise to power; that’s something we don’t need in this country, dictators.”
If there is a lesson to be learned here:
Think critically. Criticize this story, follow the references online and take the time to know that you can recognize and trust journalistic reporting. If you are unfamiliar with terms or information, or you disagree with the validity of the information presented in this story, fact check further through multiple sources.
Don’t believe everything you read, hear or see. Be critical of journalists, politicians, the president, your professors and even your parents. Learn where you can find trustworthy information, and research perspectives that differ from your own.
Learn how to recognize satire, fake news and misinformed stories. Do you recognize the name of the news source? Do sketchy advertisements pop up? This may be an indication of lacking validity. Online stories that provide no quotes, or factual information from referenced sources, are most likely not thorough. Learn how to distinguish political commentary from news reporting.
For the Stanford Study and other research referenced in this story, hyperlinks are included to ensure the reader’s accessibility to fact check and further.
The last page of the Pew study, illustrates the sample sizes and margins of error for the study. This is an example of a more-transparent study, which explains how the study was conducted and where error might occur.
The UA's Society of Professional Journalists Chapter will host a panel called The Future of Press Freedom in an Era of Fake News on Wednesday, April 12 in the Main Library Room 314A. The panel will feature David Fitzsimmons from Arizona Daily Star, David Cuillier, UA School of Journalism director, Linda Valdez from Arizona Republic, Dylan Smith of tucsonsentinel.com and Mary Feeney, the UA librarian who helped to create the guide to spotting fake news. The panel begins at 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/events/1844857505837638.
Follow Isaac Andrews on Twitter