Media in crossfire: fact checking vs. fake news

The U.S. is deeply divided about public policy and society’s values.  The media, the supposedly neutral chronicler of events, is caught in the crossfire and losing public support.

In a rapidly changing news world, many people believe that newspapers and electronic media are biased.  They have doubts if there is any reliable source.

Politicians view the media with discomfort and even hostility.  As has always been true, some of them object to the scrutiny of an independent media, failing to understand its essential role in a functioning democracy.

Gov. LePage openly wishes for the demise of newspapers.  President Trump labels any report that displeases him as “fake news” and uses Twitter to circumvent the media.

Trump is a denizen of the electronic media world.  He openly says he intends to go around the traditional media by his use of tweets.  His approach inevitably stimulates his opposition to resort to the same strategy.

The media is supposed to represent the voice of the people in the political process.  But something has happened to that voice.  The people themselves trust it less.  At either end of the political spectrum, partisans believe only sources whose bias corresponds with theirs.

Newspapers, once dominant, and the three television networks had a financial incentive to be neutral.  That way they could attract and retain the widest audience.  But cable and the Internet greatly expanded access to news sources and opinion.

Unlike traditional media, where an editor could require evidence to back up reports, blogs and social media publish unproven assertions as if they were fact.  Readers and viewers have no way of being sure of accuracy, contributing to the falling confidence in the media.

Reliable, objective reporting is harder to find.  Much of the media resorts to relaying two sides of an issue and lets that serve as objectivity.  Relatively little reporting independently seeks evidence to examine partisan assertions.

The result is that much news is really opinion, not fact-based.  Opinion articles, which should be supported by facts, can be untethered to reality while asserting its author’s beliefs as if they were fact.

Even more of a problem is the intentional statement of facts as news when the author knows it is false but uses it to support a viewpoint or political position.  The Data and Society Research Institute has recently published a report detailing how this is done and by whom.

Take a conservative column about Trump’s Warsaw speech that you may have read.  The president defended the West and hailed it as a notable civilization worth saving.  The author, a blogger, said Trump’s words were cheered, “while American leftists writhed in torment before their heads exploded.”

The mainstream media had barely covered the content of his speech.  If there was a “leftist” reaction, it was in the same social media world in which the author lives.  In that world, such extravagant language promotes division.  Because millions participate, it creates a problem for the more responsible media.

Daily newspapers have a news cycle with deadlines.  For cable and the electronic media, there’s no cycle and a strong desire to scoop the opposition by getting a story out first.  Events are subject to exhaustive interpretation before they happen, when the consumer could know the truth by simply waiting a couple of hours.

The goal is to commandeer the media by the scoop and posting attention-grabbing headlines, even if they are knowingly false.  That’s fake news, but successful clickbait.  It matters little if this “news” can later be proven wrong; the initial report leaves a lasting impression.

Is the traditional media, trying to report objectively, doomed to disappear under a wave of opinion-based news?  Not necessarily.

London’s Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett finds that her paper plus the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are all holding their own or gaining.  These newspapers have experienced staffs that can seek the truth and provide “real news.”

The model for journalism should not be a balance between conservative Fox News and liberal MSNBC.  Few people have the time to watch them both, so they choose to get their news and comment in line with their own bias.

Fact checking, a growing form of journalism, is a better answer.  Reporters search out facts to validate or reject major public claims.  This approach is growing.  More than 190 fact checkers from 54 countries met earlier this month and adopted a code of principles.

Facts, consistently pursued, may be ignored or ridiculed by partisans, but they are the best answer to fake news.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.