News Media Need to Protect Us From Fake News

Screen shot of the Constitution Center’s panel with Susan Glasser (left), Glenn Kessler (center), Brian Stelter (right).

A vigorous free press is central to our Republic. If any part of the government fails in its duty or oversteps legal bounds, we expect the news media to alert all of us to the facts, and bring judges, legislators, police, private citizens and organizations into action to remedy the problem. Without the news media, minorities and the less fortunate in our society would be the first to suffer inequality and ultimately loss of freedom.

But how does this work in an age when facts and “alternate facts” appear together, seemingly indistinguishable, in the new media that people are tuned to? The National Constitution Center on Independence Mall in Philadelphia took up the question under the heading, “Defining Truth in Modern Politics.”

With this very hot topic, the Constitution Center presented a very tepid discussion. Three journalists, including Susan Glasser, Politico columnist and weekly podcast host, Glenn Kessler, fact checker for the Washington Post, and Brian Stelter, host of the CNN program Reliable Sources, responded to questions from Tom Donnelly, senior fellow at the Center, in a program on May Day.

The panelists agreed that the media are under attack, notably from President Trump with his charges that they publish “fake news.” Kessler contrasted the situation today and 30 years ago and said that at the time, the New York Times, Washington Post and other respected newspapers, Newsweek and Time magazine, and a few respected broadcasters (think Walter Cronkite), laid down the facts. Battles centered on the opinions that could be drawn from those facts, but not the underlying truths.

But that is no longer the model in our internet age. Today, millions of Americans draw their news from the Internet, talk radio and similar sources. Some sources still practice traditional investigative journalism to produce real facts. But others freely run with rumors, false claims and propaganda — untested assertions, if they are surprising and eye-catching, get retweeted and repeated until they appear to be established facts.

Kessler, the fact checker, noted that the scope of his activity does not include opinions, just facts. Within that delimited area, he can handle only those claims that can be readily checked from available sources. That leaves out a great deal.

Stelter traced the current battle over “fake news.” It began with allegations by newsmen that then presidential candidate Donald Trump was spewing false information. The example given was Trump’s campaign claim that he would cut prescription medicine costs and save Medicare $300 billion per year, when in fact the total bill that Medicare pays for prescription medicines is closer to $70 billion. Stelter considered that perhaps Trump tried to recover from the blunder by accusing the news media of publishing “fake news.”Adding to the problem, the panelists noted the tendency for people to read and listen to only those news outlets that agree with their political preferences. The media play to this element by segregating themselves on the political spectrum. The panelists had no suggestion as to how to move people out of their “bubbles,” except to recommend it.

The panel’s prognosis is not optimistic: they recognize that the traditional media face a breakdown in their business plan built around people paying for information. Stelter suggested that in 10 years there might be more daily newspapers, such as a Sunday edition sold at a substantially higher price than today.

The panelists urged us to recognize the difference in quality of different information sources. But Kessler pointed out the limited independent fact checking that can happen in our system, constrained by time and the difficult economic issues facing traditional newspapers. So, although acknowledging the problem, this panel had few specifics to offer to correct it. Neither did they express any thought that it will right itself.

We can do better.

Generating fake news, including disinformation so extreme as to be unbelievable, is a technique for getting attention and coverage in the respectable press. A transparent falsehood may attract disproportionate press attention, bringing coverage and publicity to the faker.  The professional media ought to be very cautious not to give such prominent attention to fakery as to make it a successful strategy for those seeking publicity.

The most immediate remedy against fake news should be found among journalists. Responsible journalists must speak out against fake news, not just to each other but in loud unmistakable voices to the world. Even this panel on truth in publishing showed no interest in specifying which journalists and media need reformation.

From a mistaken sense of obligation to be even-handed, the media treat those who propound fake news as if they are respectable sources. In this complicated age, the journalists and news media need to step up to the task. If they are going to report faulty or unvalidated material, a disclaimer is needed. The prominence given the material must be reconsidered in light of the tendency for listeners to choose to believe too much.

Longer term, putting civics back into elementary and high school curricula could be very useful. Education to prepare students for life on a planet of the electronic media should include training in finding the indicia of authenticity and the opposite. The evils of crowdspeak also need to be emphasized and taught from actual cases.

We might also need rating agencies. In a society that ranks innumerable services, including entertainment programs, books, movies, appliances, repair services, and so many others, applying our penchant for quality of the media is a logical next step.

The government should not rate the news media, because of considerations of freedom of speech and the press under the First Amendment. Any effort in that direction would be a serious threat to the independence of the news media.

But ratings do not need to be done by government. Taking a page from the financial markets, bonds are sold in the billions of dollars to buyers who do not initiate independent evaluations of the quality of each instrument. Bond rating agencies are private entities that evaluate the quality of the issuer and the confidence that the commitment in the bond will be fulfilled.

News media could be evaluated on their careful, thorough practices applied to a story before it is published. The media have accepted standards of care to apply before releasing an article. There are also accepted forms of language, when a decision is made to publish, that disclose uncertainties or limitations that may remain in an article.

The National Constitution Center presents an ongoing program of talks on topics related to the Bill of Rights, listed at constitutioncenter.org/debate.

Watch Brian Stelter admit to accidentally spreading “fake news:”

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