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Notes from the ‘opposition party’

By Tom Kertscher
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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. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. He’s also the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.

COMMENTS

  • Jan Edick - 1963 B.S. Design

    The “fake news” phenomenon is a product of websites, blogs, Cable TV networks, etc. that are propaganda organs and have no interest in anything other than selling their agenda, joined with a concerted effort by conservative propagandists going back 30 or more years to discredit the “liberal media”. It will require a similarly concerted effort and an educated public to counter. God help us if that effort is not made and the current trend worsens. The late Peter Freyne, of Vermont weekly “Seven Days” and VPTV, once stated in a seminar, “The job of a journalist is to tell the public what the fuck is going on.”
    Those are words to live by. (But maybe the public needs to be told what journalism is.)

    Reply

  • Jini Clare - 1975

    Real journalism or “Fake News?”

    “Bengazhi is the result of a hateful video” – Susan Rice, White House officials, NY Times, mainstream media

    “The IRS did not target conservative groups” – Lois Lerner, Koskinen, IRS officials, White House officials, main stream media

    “I did not give Hillary Clinton the questions prior to the debate” – Donna Brazile, Former Democratic National Committee Chair, main stream media

    “The government does not ‘wittingly’ collect data on American citizens” – James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, testifying before a Senate committee under oath March 2013

    Reply

  • Steve Rauworth - 1970

    To speak of this issue and not include the fact that virtually all mainstream media is corporate owned is irresponsible journalism, the very reason for more and more people’s distrust. There’s an elephant in the room we have all helped create, and having become addicted to its products, now regard as normal, and it is the poisonous basis for every other problem we have, all of which are subsets.

    Reply

  • Norman Andresen - Ph.D. 76

    The first paragraph is instructive. The media and all of us have to start calling out the truth. We should not disregard the words by saying ‘he is a different kind of candidate.’ We should not dismiss the words by saying this is the new “normal”. Is this the normal we want? Are we willing to let Mr. Trump define what we call normal? Is his view of the world normal?
    Many good topics are discussed in the article. Education is critical and we need to teach critical thinking. Just because you have a degree does not make you educated. Education is a life-long endeavor that we need to engage ourself with on a daily basis. We need to become learners, not only just in our chosen discipline, but in the world we live in, locally, regionally and globally.

    Reply

  • Jim Hallett - B.A. 1972

    So-called “education” is actually part of the problem, since most elite schools (including UM) have an extremely liberal, “progressive” bent and rarely consider other viewpoints. I rely on sources outside the lamestream media, who I have trusted for reliability, since their goal is freedom for individuals, respect for private property and insuring that each person is able to pursue their own life, liberty and happiness and not be coerced and stolen from by the State. The election of Donald Trump is only a reflection of the backlash so many people have felt from being told what to do, think, and say by elitists, Hollywood, and their “progressive” ilk.

    Reply

  • Andre Charpentier - 1973

    Unfortunately, part of the fake news are articles put out by newspapers like the New York Times and the Boston Globe who put out stories that are unsubstantiated but are written as a real news story. However at the very end of the article, a one liner is “there is no evidence or proof of this. Then, to compound the faked news, release the same article months later, slightly changed but no new proof with the same disclaimer at the end.

    The other technique, which most recently was aimed at the Travel ban from six countries, is to mention that the latest ban was shot down by an Hawaiian Judge. Then say how it is meant to ban Muslims, not really connecting the “no Muslim” comment with just the six countries.

    The Boston globe now has a mad dog / always angry feeling against anything president Trump related since Hillary Clinton lost. I have never before seen this paper be so overtly biased in the past such that I cannot now believe what they print. I have found more level articles in the British newspapers than the major news organization here in the U.S.

    Reply

  • David Simpson - 1966, 1968

    It’s a mistake to lay the blame at the feet of such things as Facebook, Twitter, etc. IMHO, Journalists bear the brunt of the blame for ‘fake news’, because they have intentionally blurred the line between “journalism” and “editorialism”. We see over and over stories tainted by editorial emphasis, and without objectivity, measured over and over again by research illustrating that the “journalist” was not a journalist at all, but instead was an editorialist. This is what leads to the result that the public does not trust the media. Where is Edward R Murrow when we need him?

    Reply

  • John Wilson - 1978

    How firm will the reporters editors stand up to the administrations who withhold access to WH sources to secure favorable reporting? These intrepid reporters are straight out of central casting but the editor behind the curtain is a very large question to be addressed to get honest reporting. Forget Fake News, let it all be honest reporting.

    Reply

  • RICHARD MONKABA - 1971 MBA

    No need to place the primary blame on Facebook and social media. They are certainly contributors to fake news, but you need to look no further than supposedly unbiased newspapers. Fact based journalism has been replaced with ‘opinion journalism’. What used to be confined to the Editorial Page has now crept into headlines and most all feature “news” articles. The Detroit Free Press is an excellent example. Not going to change the thinking of the ultra liberal media – the only way to re-establish credibility would be to properly ‘label’ articles – and stop calling these publications “newspapers”.

    Reply

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