When NPR’s David Folkenflik was growing up in the Southern California town of Laguna Beach, he would occasionally visit an enormous newsstand where readers could find almost anything they wanted to read.
The Economist was next to Time. The surfer magazines were next to the tattoo magazines. The fake or dubious news — the National Enquirers of the world — were also in their own slots, somewhere in the vicinity of People and Us Weekly.
“You were given visual cues” about what was reputable and what wasn’t, said Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent. “…Facebook has, by and large, failed to do that.”
Folkenflik’s comments, made during a Thursday evening panel at The Poynter Institute about the rise of fake news, underscored a troubling new reality described by each of the participants. In a world where the traditional newsstand has been blown apart by technology and plastered on the social media feeds of millions of Americans, it’s gotten increasingly difficult to discern what’s real and what isn’t.
Throw in the growing market for hyperpartisan news, a president that seeks to undermine the mainstream media and humanity’s old-as-dust desire to wallow in its own ideological bubble, and you’ve got the makings of a serious problem.
The panelists — which included CNN senior media and politics reporter Dylan Byers and PolitiFact founder Bill Adair — each suggested different causes and solutions for the problem of fake news in response to questions from moderator Indira Lakshmanan, Poynter’s Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics.
At the outset of the conversation, which was sponsored by the Duckwall Foundation, Byers noted that fake news and popular anger toward the press is not a new wrinkle in American politics. By way of example, he cited the 1992 re-election campaign of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, who used the media as a political punching bag to fire up his base. His slogan? “Annoy the media, elect Bush.”
“I think that clearly for at least two decades…there has been a sense among conservatives…not just that their issues aren’t being covered in the mainstream media — almost a sense that they’re being ignored or talked down to,” Byers said.
Part of that, Byers said, stems from bias among journalists who tend to focus on more progressive causes, like LGBTQ rights, over the struggles of coal workers in Appalachia. Some journalists can’t countenance a worldview beyond their own, he said.
“If you think about it on a grid, you’ve got the common narrative in the middle — which we’re really losing hold of, and you have your silos on the left and right,” Byers said.
Although the current “fake news” epidemic is rooted in historical problems with misinformation and propaganda, the fracturing of media brought on by the rise of the internet is partly to blame for the current situation, Adair said.
In decades past, mass media represented a more centrist worldview — people opened the newspaper to read George Will’s conservative column and left-leaning alternatives because they appeared in the same place.
Now, readers are free to make their own media diets, and they’re often not balanced, Adair said.
“Isn’t it wonderful that we never have to encounter an idea that we disagree with?” he said, sarcastically. “We have these silos that we can go into that…everyone says what we believe.”
Fact-checking has been a “disruptive” corrective force, but it hasn’t been a panacea, Adair said. The tribal nature of politics means that voters are often dubious or dismissive of fact-checkers when their side is critiqued yet cheer on the truth squads when they fault their opponents.
That sentiment was echoed by moderator Lakshmanan, who noted that those fact checks may be for nothing if readers choose not to act on them or dismiss them out of hand. Fact-checkers are now being accused of harboring ideological motivations, causing a kind of inflation on the currency of truth.
“At what point do facts wash over people because they don’t believe in facts?” Lakshmanan asked.
“Politics brings strong passions,” Adair responded. “With those passions come love for your team. And when the referees call one against your team, you’re not happy about it.”
The media has occasionally deserved the public’s scorn, Folkenflik said. Trumpeting the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq during the runup to the war when there weren’t any; failing to warn the public about Wall Street’s impending collapse; overlooking Trump’s support among White suburban women; these were all serious errors on the part of the mainstream media.
When outlets like FiveThirtyEight and The New York Times recently forecasted a blowout electoral win for Hillary Clinton, they helped make President Trump’s case that the mainstream media was inaccurate and biased when he won, Folkenflik said.
“That’s known as fallibility,” he said. “And that’s a problem. Donald Trump said, ‘See, folks? I told you all along that they lied to you.’”
Each panelist offered potential solutions to the problem. At the end of the talk, Adair gave a live demonstration of fact-checking done through Amazon’s voice-activated Echo device. He asked Alexa, Echo’s virtual assistant, to fact-check whether former national security adviser Michael Flynn was given his security clearance by the Obama administration. Alexa reported for the audience that PolitiFact rated that statement “true.”
Adair also weighed in on the media’s incentive to prioritize conflict, personality and drama over the more straightforward reporting of traditional news organizations like The Associated Press. Ultimately, the trend toward entertainment-fueled news on network television will continue to thrive as long as there’s an appetite for it, Adair said.
“It’s why there are ice cream parlors and no broccoli parlors,” he said.
Folkenflik harkened back to the newsstand in Laguna Beach, noting that platforms could do a better job of providing signals that indicate which information sources are reputable and which aren’t. An article in The Guardian, Folkenflik said, is probably trustworthy. An article in The Denver Guardian, by contrast, is totally fabricated. But if you weren’t paying close attention, you probably couldn’t tell the difference.
“We are not getting the information we need to determine what we’re deciding to consume,” he said.
Byers put some of the responsibility for stopping the spread of fake and hyperpartisan news on consumers. He cited as evidence the recent backlash in response to Bret Stephens’ debut column for The New York Times. Stephens, who angered liberals by arguing that blind certainty on some finer points of the effects of global warming shuts down a healthy dialogue, sparked outrage and threats to cancel subscriptions. By disregarding Stephens entirely, Byers said, those on the left were tending to their own filter bubbles.
“Don’t shut out the smart, thoughtful Republicans from your life, from your news diet, just because you don’t agree with them,” he said.
The last line of defense against fake news and misinformation is common sense, Byers said. During the campaign, he was often shouted at by voters touting the latest conspiracy theory. When Byers asked where the voters got their information, the answer was often the same: the internet.
Increased media literacy and caution when assessing information is key, he said.
“Every time the conversation of fake news comes up, we ignore the elephant in the room, which is: ‘Don’t be stupid,’” Byers said.