The Critical Need For 'Truthful' News

What is fake news? What is “truthful” news? What impact can each have on our democracy?
01/17/2017 10:52 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2017

“I’m not going to give you a question. I am not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”

When Donald Trump shouted this out at Jim Acosta of CNN News during his recent press conference, it was not a case of the pot calling the kettle black. It was a case of the pot calling the meal a kettle.

That’s so because the president-elect is definitely the “pot”. He is one the primary proponents of so-called “fake news” in today’s synthetically saturated media environment where “made-up stuff” dominates a number of the communication channels.

Early on, Trump captured substantial media attention with his unsubstantiated “birther” claims regarding President Barack Obama. Throughout the course of his primary and presidential campaigns and even now as he prepares to ascend to the most important job in the land, Trump has generated headlines and garnered considerable coverage with numerous assertions, proclamations and tweets that have been devoid of substance and not supported by facts.

His attack on CNN, a “legitimate” news source, as the promulgator of fake news because of a story they ran about Russia having compromising information on him was an attempt to conflate and confuse the issue and to manipulate his base of supporters. Trump’s tantrum highlights the critical need to come to grips with fundamental questions regarding the nature of the news.

These include: What is fake news? What is “truthful” news? What impact can each have on our democracy? What can be done to promote a brand of news that builds a stronger country and citizenry? Let’s examine each of these questions in turn.

Fake News in Perspective

Writing for The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan states, “Fake news has a real meaning – deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public.” We like Ms. Sullivan’s definition but it may be a bit too narrow.

Carl Cannon, executive editor and Washington Bureau chief for RealClearPolitics identifies the following categories or reasons for “fake news”: partisan animus, deliberate hoaxes; reporters’ hoaxes; unwittingly repeating the lies of others; and, not fact-checking assertions. In this broader “working definition”, fake news can be either intentional or unintentional.

No matter what the definition, there is one thing about which we are completely certain. Fake news is not news!

The Free Dictionary defines news as “information about recent events or happenings, especially as reported by means of newspapers, websites, radio, television, and other forms of media.”

Fake news is not information. It is disinformation.

It is fiction. It is counter-factual. It can be propaganda for a purpose. It can be incredibly harmful to our representative democracy. (More on this later.)

Truthful News in Perspective

“Truthful” news stands in stark contrast to “fake news”. Truthful news is fact-based, authentic and accurate.

There are sometimes errors in truthful news. But, they are not in it by design. They are honest mistakes or misstatements. They are misinformation, not disinformation.

Truthful news is produced by journalists and others who adhere to set of ethical standards.

According to Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia University, there are six key functions that journalism and news play to a greater or lesser degree for citizens in democratic societies:

  • Information: provided fairly and fully
  • Investigation: into concentrated sources of power
  • Analysis: furnishing in-depth and coherent frameworks to help explain complex topics or issues
  • Social Empathy: describing the conditions and situations of others in society and the world especially the disadvantaged
  • Public Forum: being a centralized communications vehicle for dialogue and discourse on issues and matters of importance
  • Mobilization: advocating for particular positions, programs or actions

Fake News and Truthful News: The Citizens Perspective

Fake news and truthful news can make a tremendous difference in a democracy. Truthful news has the potential to bring us closer together and to facilitate collaboration in problem-solving, community building and pursuit of the common good. Fake news can highlight our differences, widen the gap between us as citizens, and reinforce polarization and partisanship.

Given that, one might conjecture that there would be an overwhelming rejection of fake news and the purveyors thereof and a total acceptance of truthful news and its providers. Various studies done by the Pew Research Center suggest that is not case. They indicate that the general public has a high degree of skepticism regarding fake news and truthful news.

A Pew Research Center study done in December 2016 found that that the public has concerns about the impact of fake news on politics and innocent individuals. 64% of the respondents said they thought that fake news “caused a great deal of confusion” about the basic facts of current events.” And, an additional 24% felt fake news caused “some confusion.”

That is heartening. But, the public’s attitude overall regarding true news is disheartening.

A Pew study conducted in mid-2012 showed that news organization’s positive believability ratings declined to 56% from 62% in 2010. This compares to a positive rating of 71% in 2002.

There was some good news for truthful news in 2016. A Pew study conducted in the first quarter of last year revealed that 75% of respondents felt news organizations “keep political leaders in check – preventing them from doing things they shouldn’t be doing.”

Unfortunately, there was bad news in that same study as well. 74% of those surveyed said that the news organizations favor one side.

The worse news from that study, however, was that only 18% trusted information from national new organizations “a lot”. The survey participants trusted information acquired from social media even less – at a mere 4%.

In conclusion, these surveys demonstrate that while most Americans have a concern about fake news they also lack confidence in truthful news and believe there is media bias. This perception of untrustworthiness and bias in the traditional media is more strongly felt by Republicans than Democrats.

No matter which side of the political fence one sits on though there is a filter through which the news is received. For example, Democrats find coverage on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal much less believable than Republicans do. And, Republicans find MSNBC and the New York Times much less believable than Democrats do.

Making the News More Truthful

Another Pew Research Center study shows that over the past few years, citizens have become increasingly more politically polarized. Fake news and perceptions of media bias have added to that polarization. This past presidential election cycle including the rhetoric of the president-elect exploited and heightened the polarization.

As we approach the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America, the United States and our democracy is at a pivot point. Indeed, Time Magazine in naming Donald Trump its person of the year referred to him on its cover as President of the Divided States of America.

The question becomes what can be done to, with and through the news to change that downward trajectory and to make it a vehicle for reuniting the citizens and the country.

The participants in the Pew study on fake news assigned responsibility for preventing its spread equally to the social media itself, politicians and government, and the public. We agree with that allocation in responsibility and there have already been steps taken to try to stem the influx of fake news.

They include:

  • Major social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit doing a better job of policing material placed thereon.
  • A Twitter group named Sleeping Giants conducting a campaign to inform organizations such as 3-M and Patagonia who were having their ads unwittingly run on “hate news” sites such as Breitbart News so that they could have them taken down.
  • Stanford University publishing a new report Evaluating Information: the Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning identifying problems and suggesting solutions to the information processing capabilities of students from middle school through college.

Fake news will never be eliminated. But, in our opinion, it will be called out for what it is and constrained. It will always have a following just as yellow journalism, scandal sheets and tabloids have for some time.

The more critical need for this country, its citizens, and the vitality of the democracy is to address the negative impressions that exist regarding truthful news and traditional news organizations and to increase their believability and trust with the general public. The media community painfully aware of this need is proposing actions it should take:

  • In an article run shortly after Donald Trump referred to CNN as “fake news, Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times asserted “The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president.” Ruttenberg advocated creating a “game plan” based upon “a page in the 12-step playbook”
  • In a report written for the Brookings Institution after the election, Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute and a senior fellow at Brookings, set out seven steps for a path that journalists can take to “…better serve the public in the new political, technology and information era.” These include: Doing a better job of labeling what is news reporting, what is an opinion piece, and what is news analysis. And, covering what is important and not barking at every car.

Course corrections by the media will be important for increasing the public’s receptivity for truthful news but, in and of themselves, they will be woefully insufficient to get the job done. That’s so because a sustainable democracy hinges on having informed citizens.

In 2009, The Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, focused on communities as opposed to the media. That Report presents three ambitious objectives:

1. Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all Americans and their communities.
2. Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information.
3.Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.

The Report presents 15 specific recommendations for accomplishing those objectives. In 2017, it is time to resurrect that report, its recommendations and related documents and use them as a platform for renewing our American democracy.

In November of 2016, in part because of the results of the Brexit vote and the U.S. elections, the Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its word of the year.

If the United States becomes post-truth, it will also become post-democracy. If the fourth estate becomes a fifth wheel, it will stop forward momentum and drive American democracy into a ditch.

The need for truthful news is critical to the future of this country and its citizens. That’s the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Enough said.

CONVERSATIONS