How to Combat the "Fake News" War

Trump is a big fan of calling various news networks "fake news," especially when they report something about him he doesn't like, such as poll numbers. Having a president so antagonistic against the media is certainly new in American politics, even though yellow journalism has been a thing for years, and Republicans coined the term "liberal media" years ago.

But Trump is not alone in believing that the mainstream media is not honest. In a Havard-Harris Poll, 65% of Americans believed that news organizations publish stories that are not true. Not surprisingly, 80% of Republicans believe this and 53% of Democrats do. The Harvard-Harris co-director Mark Penn said, "Much of the media is now just another part of the partisan divide in the country with Republicans not trusting the ‘mainstream’ media and Democrats seeing them as reflecting their beliefs."

It's hard to parse out media bias, but I think AllSides does a decent job.

Consequences of the War

You might think that Trump is either "winning" or "losing" his war against the media. One may look at polls from late June that show 50% of voters said they trusted CNN more than Trump, versus 43% trusting Trump more. 

But in reality, the consequences are that trust among Americans is slipping with regard to both the presidency and the media. While 65% believe the media will publish fake content, 73% have low trust in what they hear from the White House. Americans don't trust sources of information that were previously more trustworthy.

This is dangerous. What happens when people don't believe their president or their media? I can only speculate, but the rise of sensationalist, truly hoax-ish sites is possibly driven by a desire to look for "the real story" that nobody else will tell you.

President Trump is his own kettle of fish, but how can the mainstream media reclaim the trust of the American people?

Notable Transgressions

There will be some people that believe Trump out of hand that news is "fake," and others that will defend mainstream or left-leaning news outlets as an instinctual reaction against the president. Something like, "Trump is a compulsive liar, so if he says news is untrustworthy, the opposite must be true."

However, there are a number of notable transgressions by mainstream news sites that are really not helping their reputations. Anecdotes are very powerful things, and trust is something that is much more easily lost than won. Imagine if you lied to your spouse about something very important--would the fact that you're honest 99% of the time really do much to make them feel comfortable?

The transgressions of which I speak are spread widely among those who already have a tendency to distrust mainstream news--which, remember, is 65% of the country. We already know that social media algorithms show you what you already tend to agree with. It's not really their fault: they're not an education site, and you actually train the algorithm to give you more of that, because you respond well to things people say that you agree with, and badly to those that disagree with you. 

In this echo-chamber, reports of transgressions of integrity flourish. A few will do--once you've seen a dozen, or a few dozen, you're probably going to lose a lot of trust in the news media. No matter how many honest reports that stacks up against. It's a very common cognitive bias to trust repeated anecdotes more than raw statistics.

Here are a few of these transgressions I came across (somewhat unintentionally) that highlight how dangerous intellectual dishonesty within the media can be.

Time

Time published a piece about Charles Koch titled, "Charles Koch Says US Can Bomb its Way to $100,000 salaries," with the associated quote saying, "if we make more bombs, the GDP goes up--particularly if we explode them." In reality, this is the opposite of Koch's intent--he is criticizing the use of GDP because it would pretend that bombing was economically profitable.

Here's the link to the article, which changed its title later.

This was picked up by "The Reagan Battalion" on Twitter, who seems to have led the calling-out of Time for dishonesty. Then it got retweeted 1600 times, and I'm sure many more. Millions of people probably saw this. Their trust took a hit. This is an example of valuable ammunition for those who want to convince you not to trust the news media.

CNN

Trump's prime target is not innocent, either. They had originally published a story on TV of a young woman making a speech about her community not being violent in its own neighborhood. Their correspondent said the young woman was "calling for peace," and the video clip certainly seemed to show that.

However, CNN cut away just before she called for the violence to be moved to the suburbs. To quote: 

“Stop burning down s– we need in our community,” “Take that s– to the suburbs. Burn they s– down. We need our s–."

Here's the full video. It juxtaposes the video with the original CNN TV feed (note I wasn't able to get an original recording of the TV feed). Note the responses in Twitter. Those already prone to distrust the news ate it up and used it as ammunition to show that they're right.

After being called out, CNN changed the article to include the full quote.

I've seen plenty of other examples; you get the idea.

The Takeaway

These integrity transgressions are some combination of incompetence or malice. Either way, they are unacceptable. Not only do they misinform the public, but they give ammunition to those who are intentionally trying to cause more distrust of the news media for their own purposes.

The Hard Path Back to Trust

The hard truth here is that if the news media is going to win back the trust of the American people, it needs to be flawless. It needs to be iron-clad in its integrity. Whether it mis-reports out of incompetence or is intentionally distorting the truth does not matter. When you're this wrong about something, you give people ammunition--at exactly the wrong time.

Someone who wants to support the mainstream media may get frustrated by this. "Donald Trump lies more!" This isn't about Donald Trump. It's not about who lies more. It's about whether the news media can win the trust of Americans back. Saying "Trump lies more!" does not suddenly make the news media more trustworthy. Neither Trump nor the news media are trusted.

News media can become more trustworthy. But they're companies that need to make money. If you want to help restore the trust of the American people in the mainstream media, you need to defend them where they're right--and call them out when they're wrong. If you see transgressions of integrity like this, don't stay quiet and hope it will go away. It won't. It will flourish in the social media echo chambers of those who already don't trust the media. You need to let news media know, when it does transgress, that this is unacceptable to you as a viewer / reader / listener. Remind them they depend on you to pay the bills. 

When enough people make the consequences of such transgressions clear, the return on investment of getting it right will suddenly become a lot higher.

1 Comment

Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.