If you’re angry that Trump spewed lie after blatant lie during the election and yet somehow won, you’re not alone. As a candidate and now as President, Trump has consciously eroded trust in traditional news sources by wildly calling any unfavorable coverage “fake news”. Meanwhile actual fake news has some people convinced that Clinton was responsible for the murders of dozens of people, and that a pedophile ring was being run out of a pizza restaurant (also connected to the Clinton campaign, of course). Yes, really. During this election we’ve witnessed the alarming movement of conspiracy theories from the fringe to the mainstream.
Short of grabbing our Trump-befuddled friends and family members by the shoulders and shaking some sense into them, what can we do to fight this disinformation campaign? What can we do to prevent ourselves from being taken in by half-truths and outright lies, and what can the responsible journalists do to stop their propagation?
To get to some answers, Progressive Watertown hosted the public forum "What is the Role of the Media in our Democracy?” last Sunday, April 2nd.
The Watertown Free Public Library very kindly supplied the venue. The panel included David King of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Bruce Gellerman of WBUR, and Joshua Miller and Nick Osborne of the Boston Globe. They had a wide-ranging, lively discussion in front of an audience of over 100 people, including state senator Will Brownsberger and former state senator George Bachrach. Here are a few highlights from the discussion.
David King made some opening remarks about the changing nature of the media (demonstrated using Bruce Gellerman’s head). Before the last couple of decades, people got their news from just a few main sources. The need to reach a broad audience meant that it had to appeal to the middle, not the edges. Nowadays there are literally thousands of news sources-everything from traditional newspapers to random bloggers online-so media outlets compete intensely for an audience. One way to do this is to target stories and headlines to specific audiences, with sometimes starkly different viewpoints. People have had trouble dealing with so much conflicting information and so much uncertainty about who to trust. In the era of bottomless news feeds, it is no longer possible to read “all” of the news. People feel overwhelmed by the flood of information and tend to only go to sources that make them feel better, that confirm what they already believe, and tell them it will be alright. It’s harder for journalists to challenge our beliefs like they used to.
Nick Osborne spoke about the need to distinguish opinion pieces from impartial news-not everyone is good at making this distinction. When it was in a physical newspaper, you could have different opinions side by side. But now, online, people only see one opinion and don’t see the alternative view. He suggested online media sources can do more to make it clear when it’s an opinion piece.
The panelists were asked whether it is possible to get back to the older broadcast model (i.e. just a few reliable sources of news). WBUR is conducting an experiment to try this, using a multimedia strategy. Other media sources are watching to see how it turns out.
Josh Miller was asked how does the media consumption of politicians differ from the public? Much is the same, with politicians reading online news and using twitter. They have to pay attention to news coverage about themselves, for instance setting up Google alerts on their name. A big difference is in their point of view on the news. They consider how news may affect the public perception of their own policy positions. A study found that based on their social media behavior, politicians tend to be in really bad echo chambers, interacting only with like-minded sources, more so than the average public.
The discussion then turned to the responsibilities of the media.
Does the media have an obligation to present “the truth”? Bruce Gellerman was skeptical that journalists could write “truth”, i.e. be objective. He was unclear what being “balanced” meant. Balancing black vs white gives you gray, not the truth.
Josh Miller was more optimistic. He tries to be as objective as possible. Rather than inserting his opinions, he instead just presents the facts and lets readers reach their own conclusions.
Do journalists have an obligation to call out Trump’s lies? There has been debate among journalists over how strongly to call them out, such as whether to call them “falsehoods” or “lies”. Gellerman said he is comfortably calling them lies.
All of the panelists were very committed to publishing honest information. For instance, they have rules to get multiple sources to confirm a fact, especially if it’s controversial. Their editors challenge them to prove every word of what they create.
They did admit that journalists deserve some blame, because they helped Trump by giving him lots of attention. Some people are tuning out the news now because they are tired of hearing about Trump all the time. Stories about him also crowd out other important stories.
They gave a few suggestions of what we can do, as consumers of media.
Television is not a good news source, because there is too much information presented quickly for people to thoughtfully consider it.
Osborne urged people to avoid the fallacy that personal truth is equivalent to objective truth. He gave the example that one person might be friendly with some police officers, while another person is regularly stopped in traffic by the police. The two people will have very different views of law enforcement. You have to dig deeper than individual experience to get to the underlying reality, but many people don’t really understand the distinction.
Gellerman had some blunt words. We are the problem, not the media. What we read and watch determines what they publish. We share and believe based on whether the “news” makes us feel good, and confirms what we believe to be true. We don’t take the time to double check whether it’s actually true. So if we want to see less fake news, we should stop sharing it! This can be as simple as checking the story in more than one news source to make sure it’s legitimate. Conversely, if we want to see more quality journalism, we have to read and share quality journalism.
That segues nicely into their last piece of advice, which was:
A big thank you to everyone who attended, to the organizers, and to the panelists for their wonderful discussion! You all made it a great event!