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Notes from the ‘opposition party’

By Tom Kertscher

War of words

Harvard's Anne Marie Lipinski, BA '94, captured the sentiments of a real journalist back in January with this tweet.

Harvard’s Anne Marie Lipinski, BA ’94, captures the sentiments of a longtime editor in a tweet. (Image: Twitter.) See larger image.

It seems safe to say that, during his first news conference as United States president-elect, Donald Trump used a phrase that had never been uttered publicly by any of the 44 men who preceded him to the nation’s highest office. Trump punctuated his repeated refusals to answer a question from a CNN reporter with an attack: “You are fake news.”

Yes, nine days before taking office, the future president maligned one of the world’s leading news organizations as a purveyor of phony, manipulative disinformation. To be sure, Americans’ trust in TV, radio, and newspapers to report the news has reached an all-time low, according to Gallup Polling, which began in 1972. And Trump’s disparagement of CNN shows the primacy that “fake news” has achieved in 2017.

The new normal

Sparring between U.S. presidents and members of the free press is nothing new. But this sustained attack on the mainstream media’s credibility – by the most powerful person in the world – feels different. And journalists have their work cut out for them, says David Whiting, BA ’77, Page One columnist at Southern California’s Orange County Register.

“People’s knee-jerk reaction a lot of times is that [journalists] are lying,” Whiting says. “People are deeply cynical and have been for a long time about mainstream media, and I think this election continued to do that.”

Journalists are trapped in a “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” situation Whiting says. “We used to not repeat rumors. The idea was that if we wrote about it, it’s easy to spread those rumors and false news.”

But the recent explosion of fake news forced the media to rethink that approach, he says.

“If we ignore it, it gets out there. And if we report on it, it gets out there. How to get the beast back into its cage?”

Fighting the good fight for the free press

Listen in as investigative journalist and visiting professor Will Potter gets real about the problem of fake news. (More Listen In, Michigan podcasts.)

Back to the basics

With all this attention on the media, it’s a good time to revisit the fundamentals in the newsroom, says Alison Pepper, BA ’00, a senior producer for CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

“One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a journalist is going into reporting on something that you think you already know and not being open to being wrong,” she says. “You have to change as you get new information and I think a lot of times journalists get themselves into trouble when they go in with an agenda and only look for what meets that agenda. That’s very scary.”

Media consumers would be wise to follow that advice. After all, it’s consumers — seeking out news that fits their preconceived agendas – who are feeding the fake news machine, says Anne VanderMey, BA ’08, an associate editor at Fortune magazine.

“Fake news fills a need for super-partisan content, regardless of accuracy,” she says. “But there’s a lot of good journalism out there if people are open to going out and finding it.”

The election’s role

Depression in the newsroom

An email  Q&A with Matthew Shaw, U.K. Deployment Editor at BBC News and former Knight-Wallace Fellow at U-M

Michigan Today: Depression in newsrooms is rarely addressed, and it’s something you have been researching via Knight-Wallace. What have you learned?

Matthew Shaw: Several on-air colleagues [have told me] about the abuse they receive on social media. I think it’s worse for less prominent reporters or those starting their careers. It’s a brutal and unpleasant world. Also, news is 24/7 by its very nature, and many journalists think it would be wrong to limit their use of email/phone when they’re off duty. I think the vast majority of e-traffic is unnecessary, but it’s up to the individuals to control the ways they consume news and balance their work and life.

MT: How do you think the press being labeled “the opposition party” will impact modern journalism?

MS: Journalists are resilient. And editors need to stand their ground and support their staffs. I’ve seen reports of journalists being abused by people on the street in the U.S. We need to think of ways of supporting staff in this situation — like any hostile environment.

MT: How does the industry reclaim its credibility?

MS: If journalists keep trying to uncover the truth, have good sources, and tell stories as well as they can — then that’s all they can and should do.

History shows politicians always have used the media to discredit one another, call one another names, and cite one another’s faults. But the 2016 presidential election ushered something far more pernicious into the mainstream press, says CBS’ Pepper.

“This election, more than any other, had some pretty crazy, hard-to-believe headlines that were true,” she says. “So, when you sprinkle fake news into that, it’s harder to spot. People were spreading things that were true really fast because it was so hard to believe, and at times a little bit outrageous. They were spreading the fake and the real, sort of equally, without checking the sources.”

Friends, family, and Facebook share much of the blame. Facebook is the biggest driver of users to media sites today; some 1.8 billion people log onto Facebook each month. And research shows that angry people tend not only to be more partisan but also are more likely to share information on social media, says Brian Weeks, assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). He also is faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies.

“People are getting fake news from their friends and family now, people in their social networks, and they tend to trust those people,” Weeks says. Moreover, “this was one of the most emotional elections we’ve seen; there was a lot of anger on both sides.”

Share and share alike

VanderMey takes a measured view, suggesting the impact of fake news is limited to a small subset of media consumers.

“People who are more likely to believe extreme things are more likely to seek those articles out and share them,” she says. “So, I feel like it is sort of concentrated in a group that’s already predisposed to want to believe that sort of thing.”

That may be true. But as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter morph into de facto distribution channels, the line between real and fake news gets increasingly blurred.

People often are quick to share links without thinking of the implications, says Weeks. “You see something, it seems interesting, and you hit that share button.”

That “something interesting” could be coming from any of the purported “news” sites that have cropped up here and abroad. BBC News recently reported that a city in Macedonia, alone, is home to about a hundred sites peddling fake news to American consumers.

“In many cases, I think people perceive some of those alternative sources to be as credible as the mainstream media,” Weeks says, which makes it nearly impossible to refute or debunk a bogus story.

Whiting paints a more troubling picture. “Now people don’t even really know when they are being manipulated and also don’t seem to really care,” he says. “They’re getting what they want to hear. It almost doesn’t matter what’s real.”

No excuse for ignorance

For media consumers, “we have to all become journalists at some point,” says Pepper. “We can’t take what we read at face value. Where the information comes from matters. Now with technology and the Internet, we have the privilege of going to the primary source for the answers. And there’s no excuse for ignorance.”

Fake news, authoritarian rule, the future of Obamacare, and understanding science are topics of U-M Teach-outs over the next three months. The short, free online learning opportunities are open to the public.
Ask yourself these questions about what you see online, adds LSA’s Weeks:

  • Is it from a reliable source?
  • Does the source have an agenda?
  • Are other sources reporting the story?

“But also be aware of your own biases,” he warns. “I think the more you’re aware that these can influence whether or not you believe a certain piece of information, that might alter whether we actually do believe it.”

The same goes for journalists, Whiting points out.

“A lot of times the news is untrue,” he says. “So, if [journalists] try to do a better job of being transparent about our biases and being careful to differentiate truth and news — and fake news, particularly — we may be able to control this monster.”

Tom Kertscher

Tom Kertscher

TOM KERTSCHER is a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the author of books on two Wisconsin sports figures: Al McGuire and Brett Favre. Follow him at and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.