In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president, journalists have been stymied by an unrelenting and seemingly ubiquitous foe that threatens to undermine not only the integrity of journalism, but the truth itself.
Fake news has certainly left a mark this year, thanks in no small part to Facebook and its ability to promote networks of highly partisan media outlets to large audiences. During the election, a made-up story about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump was shared by tens of millions of people. An outlet called the Denver Guardian saw stories about Hillary Clinton murdering people go viral. And don’t even get me started on #Pizzagate.
Before we go too deep down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, made-up news purveyors and Russian hackers, it’s important to note that fake news isn’t new.
Ben Franklin, who among other things was a newspaperman, once printed a fake Boston newspaper with a headline story about murderous Native Americans that were bringing scalps of soldiers and civilians to King George III. It didn’t take long for the widely-circulated fake news story to end up republished in more credible publications, which alarmed the public and led to widespread outrage against Native Americans.
In fact, looking at the history of fake news in the United States shows the rise of made-up stories and yellow journalism actually created an appetite for more objective news, and at the turn of the 20th century, modern journalism, with real reporters covering statehouses and beats, became a successful and powerful business model.
The internet is the first real challenge to the notion of objective news in the past 100 years. Not only has the shifting media landscape cost newspapers their former prestige and reporting power, algorithms on social media platforms like Facebook have no interest in the truth or facts—they just coldly serve the content readers have indicated they want to see. And people are taking notice.
According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, 64 percent of U.S. adults say made-up news is having an impact, creating confusion about basic facts and current issues. Even worse, despite an overall confidence in their ability to spot fake news, nearly a quarter of Americans (23 percent) admit they have shared a fake political news stories online.
It’s not just Facebook that’s the problem. If you head over to Google and search, “Did the Holocaust happen? or “Is the Holocaust real?” the top results for both are fringe, anti-Semitic websites that deny the Holocaust’s existence.
Google is aware of the problem. They just refuse to do anything about it.
“We do not remove content from our search results, except in very limited cases such as illegal content, malware and violations of our webmaster guidelines,” a Google spokesperson told Forbes, noting that the search platform doesn’t endorse those views.
But there could be a silver lining for publishers.
“Fake news might trigger a good thing,” Almar Latour, publisher and executive vice president for Dow Jones Media Group, shared recently with Nieman Journalism Lab. “A reminder of the extraordinary value of truth and perhaps a realization that, after much agonizing over the viability of the news business, there is a raison d’être beyond the accumulation of digital eyeballs.”
Unfortunately, other than ramping up fact-checking efforts during the presidential campaign and writing an op-ed or two decrying our “post-truth” era, newspapers and online publishers have done little to combat the rise in fake news.
But there are opportunities for publishers, both large and small, to combat the problem of misinformation in their own communities and rebuild the trust readers once had in their products, a trust that frankly many news organization have taken for granted.
One way is to continue (or if you haven’t done so yet, start) fact-checking efforts throughout the next four years. It’s basic branding—if people are overwhelmed by the onslaught of fake news, present yourself as the alternative. Pick and choose which fake news stories are gaining steam in your coverage area and pounce. No single outlet can debunk every fake news story, so be strategic about where you deploy your newsroom resources. Soon, fact-checking will not only become part of your daily journalism mix, readers will come to expect it and soon be acting like the fact checkers themselves on social media by sharing your links.
Another is to stop avoiding your comments section. I know, they can be a cesspool of hate and anger at times, but it does no good for media companies to simply dismiss a component of its readership, no matter how ugly. Instead, editors and reporters should be promoting full transparency with their readers by interacting, seeking input and correcting lies and falsehoods in their comment sections.
“Journalists must seek to elevate the community, serving as a true platform of ideas rather than a command-and-control distribution force for facts we deem interesting,” said Rebekah Monson, co-founder and vice president of product of WhereBy.Us.
Another way is to be objective to the truth, not to partisanship. I’ve heard complaints from many editors that during the election there was the perception among their readers and commenters that their coverage slanted anti-Trump, so at times their organization overemphasized stories negative to Clinton in an attempt to seem fair and balanced (New York Times columnist Paul Krugman referred to it as “whitewashing Trump”).
It didn’t do much to change readers’ perceptions. According to a recent Gallup poll, just 32 percent of Americans have trust in news organizations. Among conservatives, that number plummets to 14 percent.
In some cases, there’s not much you can do to convince some readers that your publication is unbiased, especially with a Republican president criticizing the press nearly every chance he gets. The only real option is to stop any false equivalency and allow the editorial instincts of your staff to dictate what stories matter and why. Be objective to the truth—that’s where any news organization’s real value lies.
It’s that value proposition of access to meaningful and truthful information that newspapers and media companies should be selling. So, get rid of all the ads that bog down your mobile pages, stop pumping out pages and pages of duplicative content focused on volume and ever-declining CPMs, and focus on offering objectivity and transparency to your readers.
Just make sure to continue to give all your stories a good headline. This is 2017, after all.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor for Philly.com. Reach him at [email protected]