“Post-truth” was coined as Oxford Dictionaries 2016 Word of the Year, reflecting a worrying trend of malicious misinformation and a global challenge to fact-based journalistic work. Yet amidst the concern, it is useful to note this problem is as old as human history — a contemporary transfiguration of the misleading narratives, biased storytelling, and warping of events for selfish ends that has occurred since the dawn of mankind.
Now, however, we must ask ourselves: what is being done to address the problem? What resources are available to the public, and to the next generation of civic participants, to cast light in the shadows of truth?
IVY Magazine sat down with Darragh Worland, the Vice President for Digital Media at the News Literacy Project, to gather her insights and tangible solutions to the challenge.
What do you think it’s the greatest challenge that media organizations face today on a national and international level?
Perhaps the greatest challenges news organizations face today is public trust. Trust in the news media is at an all-time low, though this doesn’t necessarily imply that the credibility of institutional news media is at all all-time low. There is probably more high-quality news available now than ever before, but there are factors inherent to the news industry today that contribute to this low trust. This includes the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, which pushes news organizations to compete to be first, sometimes compromising accuracy in the process, and which also has resulted in more pundit-style coverage on cable news because it is cheaper and easier to produce than enterprise/investigative journalism.
Now, there are far more varied sources of information for people to turn to, making competition increasingly fierce and audiences increasingly fractured, with many people seeking out news sources that confirm their biases as opposed to sources that challenge their viewpoints with verified facts. Attention spans are shorter than ever, meaning people just don’t have the patience to read through well-reported pieces and so they are making snap judgments about content based on headlines.
As news organizations struggle to find a sustainable business model, they are relying on click-bait and sponsored content, both of which could also be factors in the public’s waning trust. The revenue model of online news sources is based on pageviews and so the goal is to create content that people want to click on. Fake news preys on this lack of trust and serves up information that news consumers want to believe, playing right into their confirmation biases. The purveyors of fake news are adept at making their sites look and feel exactly like credible news sites, both trading on the reputation of those news organizations while also damaging their reputations in the process.
There are some things news organizations can do to help restore public trust. News organizations need to listen to the public more and ensure that they are accurately reflecting the full spectrum of their audience’s experiences. For example, during the election, many news organizations failed to grasp just how much of a lead Trump had in parts of the country that they just weren’t covering. With many local newspapers shuttering around the country because they can’t generate the revenue they need to survive, national news organizations need to pick up the slack to ensure that local voices are heard and reflected in the reporting that is being done on a daily basis. But news consumers also have to do their part, and this is critical. They need to know what credible news looks like and they need to reject misinformation when they come across it. Trust in news media is a two-way street and it’s all too easy for the public to make blanket statements about “mainstream news” that just don’t apply to all news organizations. “The media” is plural and includes a broad spectrum of news sources ranging from highly credible, standards-based journalism to sensational, tabloid coverage.
There are publications doing an excellent job of reporting stories with fact-based, verified information, backed up by documentation. News consumers need to seek that out and not just become cynical about the state of the media in general. At NLP, we encourage news consumers to resist cynicism, and adopt instead a “healthy skepticism” about the news they encounter, parsing out all sources of information with a nuanced approach.
How have technology and social media changed the perception and the mission of the media’s role?
I think it’s too broad to use the term “media” here. I’d like to focus on news media, in particular. I think one of the most challenging aspects of our current information landscape is the disaggregation of news. Most of us encounter news not directly on the pages of a news publication, but rather piecemeal in our news feeds on social media. The result is that all information starts to look like it is on equal footing when it is of course not all of equal quality. A meme can appear alongside a well-reported news story, which in turn can be bumped up against a piece of fake news. It used to be that the media gatekeepers decided what news and information the public needed to see and then vetted that information and news consumers sought out that information on the pages or the channels of those news organizations, accepting that the gatekeepers were vetting the information to one degree or another. Today, we’re confronted with a fire hose of information and the onus is really on the news consumer to do much of that vetting herself.
One of the major issues at the epicenter of our public dialogue is the threat posed to our democracy by the dissemination of fake news, as well as multiple sources of inaccurate information characterized as a “reporting”. How is traditional and online media responding to the need for more accuracy and fact-checking?
During the election, we saw news media stepping up efforts to fact-check the claims made by political candidates. This renewed emphasis on fact-checking was something the public was demanding as many news consumers were overwhelmed by the task of separating fact from fiction in the assertions made by the candidates.
One of the most important roles of the news media is to act as a watchdog of democracy, holding the powerful to account and one of the most important ways of doing that is by investigating the veracity of claims made by our government representatives and corporate powers. But another important role of the news media is to watchdog both their own coverage and the coverage of other news organizations, calling out instances of media bias or false balance.
The role of the public editor or “ombudsman” is key in this regards, because the role offers an independent perspective on coverage, responding to the concerns of news consumers, while also analyzing and critiquing coverage when it fails to meet the highest standards of responsible journalism. Unfortunately, this is a role that The New York Times has just decided to eliminate. The paper’s publisher said that as far as the paper sees it, the role of the public editor has become outdated because news consumers can themselves play the role of media watchdog. This of course puts the onus back on the news consumer and only underscores the need for all of us to be better informed, more news literate consumers of news and information so that the dialogues we have in the comment sections of online news sites are more than just noise, but are actually thoughtful, measured discussions about the quality of the reporting we are consuming. But only informed news consumers can demand better quality coverage, which is why news literacy education is so fundamental to maintaining the quality of our news coverage.
What specific actions can media representatives take in their efforts to fight against fake news?
The irony here is that the more news organizations try to debunk fake news, the more they contribute to the spread of the original misinformation. So while it might seem that continuing to actively debunk misinformation would be the best means of fighting it, the reality doesn’t always bear this out.
There is an excellent piece in the Financial Times called “The Problem with Facts,” in which the author, Tim Hartford, uses the example of misinformation spread in the lead-up to the Brexit vote in the UK. The Leave campaign ran a bus campaign asserting that the UK sends the EU 350 pounds a week. The assertion was false, but it was memorable primarily because it was easy to remember and was inflammatory to those who felt the UK was getting raw deal as a member of the EU. Yet, the more news organizations, including the Guardian, tried to debunk the assertion with well-reported, nuanced articles on why the claim was false, the more they had to repeat the false claim in the process, thereby inadvertently lending more power to the original lie than to its correction.
Working to provide viewers with news literacy skills, holding town hall meetings, and actively working to regain the public’s trust are all means by which news organizations can help fight fake news. Also, partnering with organizations like the News Literacy Project in working to educate the public on how to spot credible information and reject false information is another way they can help fight fake news. NLP currently has 36 participating news organizations that help us bring news literacy lessons to secondary school students and more than 300 journalist fellows who volunteer with us to deliver lessons. This kind of collaboration is fundamental to improving the dialogue between news consumers and news organizations.
From your perspective, as the Vice President for Digital Media at the News Literacy Project, why is it important to educate young people on how to distinguish between real and fake news/reporting?
Young people often have not developed their news consumption habits yet when we start introducing news literacy to them in the classroom. Many of them are not able to distinguish between news aimed to inform and opinion, advertising, entertainment or propaganda. By helping students understand first how to filter the vast amount of information they consume online, we’re empowering them to know what information to trust, share and act on. In becoming news literate, these students are developing their critical thinking skills that will enable them to conduct more nuanced research for their school projects and papers, make better decisions about what college to attend, and ultimately enable them to participate more fully and thoughtfully in the democratic process.
Our assessment data shows that 86% of students who completed an NLP core unit of lessons learned to check information before they share it 84% became more skeptical of online information 81% gained a better appreciation of the role of journalism in democracy and 62% said they were more likely to vote when able to do so.
Educating a new generation of news readers is critical, but what can be done for a current generation of consumers? Is there a short term fix?
At the News Literacy Project, particularly after the national election, we saw a surge of interest in our programs and resources, with many adult news consumers asking for tips and tools to become more news literate. Adults are grappling with the challenges of identifying credible information just as much as young people are.
At NLP, we’re looking at creating more resources geared specifically to adults. We’re also working with Facebook to create a PSA campaign geared toward adult users of the platform 40 years of age and over. In fact, the most active sharers of fake news on Facebook are adults over the age of 40. It’s worth noting, too, that this is true across the country and not just within particular pockets of the country. Facebook findings also pointed to the fact that more than 80% of fake news distribution on their platform came from re-shares, so our campaign will look to address this.
The PSA campaign has two primary goals: To arm people with tools to become informed readers and sharers of news and to encourage users to reject fake news when they see it (so to resist the temptation to share it). The campaign will target users who have engaged with fake news within the past three months. This is one way in which we are working to address the needs of adult news consumers.