Fixing Fake News Won’t Fix Journalism – Backchannel
Scammers have become a scapegoat for the ailing press. What we really need is a deeper fix.
Last week, Facebook’s first effort at combatting the scourge known as fake news began to appear in the wild. If a user suspects a post to be false, she can flag it. Facebook then sends it to outside fact checkers — partner organizations like Snopes, PolitiFact, and ABC News— and if at least two take issue with it, the post is labeled “disputed.”
Members of the media were, to put it mildly, not impressed. Recode’s Peter Kafka wrote about the label: “‘Disputed’ makes it sound like a bar debate about the NBA’s MVP, not ‘story made up from whole cloth.’”
He’s right. Facebook’s steps toward eliminating falsehoods on its platform are so far meager; they lack nuance, are hard to find, and depend on users to patrol the service. But even if the company’s efforts evolve into a robust strategy for combatting online fabrications, we will not have succeeded in fixing fake news — because what we mean to do is fix journalism. Getting rid of falsehoods is just the start.
Too often, we conflate fake news with biased news and badly reported news. To restore journalism so that it can continue to function as our fourth estate—holding powerful people accountable and providing the language for common conversation in our country—we must address all three issues.
On Wednesday, I’ll be tackling this topic at the Near Future Summit, a multidisciplinary gathering of entrepreneurs endeavoring to change the future for the better. I’ll be joined by former CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin and iconic television producer Norman Lear. Together, we’ll brainstorm ideas for shoring up an optimistic future for news — one in which people trust information and can rely upon it so we all can be informed participants in a robust democracy.
But I already have some ideas of my own. Here’s my guide to the near future.
Why calling it “fake news” fails us
Fake news has always existed. But sometime in the last six months, the term grew larger than itself. It used to indicate a set of facts that seem true but are not—but just at the point when we had agreed on a universal definition of fake news, the 45th President of the United States co-opted the term for his own use. It started with a tweet last December:
He didn’t mean that the facts were false, of course. He meant that he didn’t like or agree with them. Over the weeks and months that followed, Trump skillfully transformed the term into a catch-all to describe any story that he disputed, in part or in full:
Along with the words “tremendous” and “crooked,” Trump turned “fake news” into a useless, self-serving term, robbing journalists and their readers of the language they used to try to establish a baseline for a working press.
In light of this, how do we talk about fixing journalism? I suggest we focus on three core issues:
Issue 1: False News
From the start of time, people have altered the truth for political gain. In the final war of the Roman Republic, Octavian used disinformation to help him beat Mark Antony. In earlier times, however, propaganda often originated from people in power and was distributed through traditional mass media channels. The barriers to distribution were much higher than they are today: It cost money to produce and distribute a publication. It was more difficult to build a trusted brand and assemble an audience for it. Most publications followed general media guidelines, and when they didn’t, they were subject to lawsuit.
The internet has changed the rules, creating the conditions for asymmetrical information warfare in which small groups of people can game social media’s algorithms and social interactions to perpetuate false claims at dizzying speeds. A teenager with access to WordPress can create a publication that looks as convincing as the New York Times. And with so many webzines spinning through cyberspace, regulators and the legal system cannot properly enforce libel law. Simply put, lying is cheap and easy and there are no consequences. Some creators are motivated by politics, but others have found a quick path to profits in creating viral hits against which they can sell ads. Still others just do it for a laugh, or the satisfaction of creating a bit of chaos.
This type of digitally disseminated disinformation is a problem, but according to a January study from Stanford University and New York University, it wasn’t the dominant source of news in the run-up to the election. Moreover, the study notes that just 14 percent of Americans called social media their “most important” source of information in the run-up to the election.
In December, Facebook announced a series of first steps for addressing hoaxes on its platform. In addition to allowing users to flag disinformation, the company will attempt to disrupt financial incentives for those perpetuating the false headlines. The company also said it would analyze data about how people were sharing stories to try to identify false stories digitally. These are strong first steps for getting rid of spam.
Issue 2: Biased News
For a brief period in American history, measuring half the span of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, readers expected their news to be unbiased. They imparted upon journalists the responsibility of reporting not a version of the truth, but the ipso facto truth. They expected reporting to be both fair and balanced. The pursuit of objectivity was the goal. It coincided with a time when we trusted generally in institutions including, believing that our government, businesses and the press all had our best interests in mind and acted honestly. News organizations’ credibility was cemented when, time after time, they were correct.
Even before the advent of the internet, the myth of absolute objectivity had begun to dissolve. But, for the most part, an educated reader was able to identify bias. We still got our news from a small number of sources, and we could pick out their political leanings and observe how their perspectives influenced their reporting. The Wall Street Journal’s version of a story would always fall right of the one published by the New York Times. Fox News would always broadcast a more conservative take than CNN.
We have now entered an age of hyper-partisanship in which our media diets conform to our world views, and they’re increasingly narrow. The news shows have followed suit, prioritizing prognostication and punditry over straight-up news gathering in order to win viewership. Everything has become a “hot take,” and readers migrate to the hot takes that already match their world views, furthering amplifying that partisanship.
What’s more, bias has become more insidious now that it is more likely to be perpetuated by algorithms we don’t fully understand and often can’t identify—rather than by publications. As a result, a couple decades ago, we could teach media literacy effectively so that educated young people entered adulthood able to make distinctions between publications. If you buy the Wall Street Journal, for example, you understand the publication’s slant in advance. Today, effective media literacy requires we understand how algorithms serve up hyper-personalized messages. It’s less clear, when an article appears in your News Feed, what algorithmic formula went into determining that you see that story. And it requires a more sophisticated understanding of the news landscape: We must draw a distinction between largely agreed-upon facts (ex: Former national security advisor Michael Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States) and iterative perspectives disguised as facts. We must understand not just the traditional news brands but also a host of upstarts from Breitbart to Buzzfeed—and we must be able to tell them apart from fake news sites like the Seattle Tribune (not a thing). In short, it’s a lot harder.
We can begin to address bias through education, making media literacy a staple of every curriculum, starting early. But that alone won’t be enough. We must also demand that technology companies become more transparent about how they decide which information we see — and build new tools that allow us to choose to see a broader array of news sources.
Issue 3: Badly Reported News
For a long time, traditional media’s business models have been irrevocably broken as the high-margin print advertising that sustained these companies has declined. Both print and TV newsrooms have been starved of resources for nearly two decades as companies scramble to figure out how to make money off of digital journalism.
As a result, we have fewer reporters on the ground chasing down stories, particularly those that are in the public’s best interest but may seem uninteresting to the public. In their place we have punditry and columnists; we have reporters regurgitating other people’s opinions that they’ve read on the web and sticking to a narrow band of topics that will garner page views, rather than serving an audience. With fewer fact checkers and editors, overworked writers don’t get the time to consider their ideas fully or vet their concepts with editors. The result is that quality is inconsistent. Over time, this will erode trust in brands.
Yet right now, these traditional outlets continue to have a strong influence on political opinions and current events. Though there has been much focus on social media’s impact on the election’s outcome, traditional media played a much larger role. “It’s still the case in 2016 that most Americans get their news from local TV news, according to Pew,” said Eli Pariser, the web entrepreneur who coined the term “filter bubble,” in an interview just after the election. “So I actually think it’s very hard to attribute the results of this election to social media generally or the filter bubble in particular.”
To regain trust, media outlets must deliver quality content consistently, putting this above being fast or popular. This will require companies to experiment with new business models that reward quality. In a January New York Times op-ed, Jessica Yellin suggested that as a condition of Time Warner’s bid to merge with AT&T, regulators should insist CNN be sold to a new independent entity. She suggests this entity be made up of philanthropists, foundations, and small-dollar donors willing to fund a trust to operate an independent CNN dedicated to news in the public interest. This would put the pursuit of better journalism alongside or even ahead of the desire to maximize profit.
As goes the media, so goes our democracy. But journalism’s future is not predestined. We will need everybody to work together — across industry lines — to reignite our collective faith in journalism. We’ve got the resources both economically and intellectually to shore it up; now we must make the commitment.