Wrestling the Fake News Monster
Levine Museum discussion tackles media industry disruption
Lisa Worf, the assistant news director at WFAE, was one of six Charlotte journalists who took part Thursday night in a panel discussion on “responsible reporting in a new media world” at the Levine Museum of the New South. I attended, and Worf and I are friends, and we hadn’t talked since the holidays. So after the discussion wrapped, we walked a couple of blocks to Duckworth’s Grill & Taphouse to grab dinner and catch up.
On her way home, after 11 p.m., she happened to look down North Davidson Street and saw, as she texted me this morning, “the most police vehicles I’d ever seen.” Never mind that her workday had technically ended hours before, and that she’d just had to devote a couple of hours afterward to a work-related function. News was happening on its own schedule, as news does, and Worf was back on the clock. Her report went live on WFAE’s website in the early hours of Friday morning. She got to bed at about 2:30 a.m.
As far as I can tell at this hour, everyone seems to have acknowledged that the attack at police headquarters Thursday night actually occurred. No one has accused her or the station, or any other local media outlet, of trafficking in “fake news.”
At this point, the term has been stripped of its meaning, maybe of any meaning at all, thanks in large part to the President’s repeated use of it as a synonym for “something I do not like.” Originally, way back in 2016, it meant something specific: Fiction deliberately concocted to mislead or obfuscate and designed to look like news, manufactured and spread via social media for political or financial reasons, or both.
Charlotte Observer publisher Ann Caulkins moderated the panel discussion at the Levine, titled “Nothing Fake About It,” and toward the end made an important point: Fake news is a byproduct of the Internet, specifically a system of digital ad revenue that values “eyeballs” to the exclusion of everything else, including any relationship to reality. The right kind of bullshit can make people a lot of money.
And under those circumstances, why play in the small local marketplace when anyone can strike gold with a globally relevant fable about Evil Hillary’s ballot-stuffing? That’s why the discussion at the Levine got off to a sputtering start, when Caulkins asked the panel—besides Worf, the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms, the Charlotte Business Journal’s Erik Spanberg, Steve Crump of WBTV, Judith Barriga of HOLA News, and Herb White of The Charlotte Post—whether accusations of “fake news” had affected the way they report. To a person, they said no. Accusations of fake news are mainly a national, not local, phenomenon. “I just don’t feel like that dynamic has hit really hit Charlotte,” Helms said. “Yet.”
So what was the point of the discussion? That was never exactly clear, although there’s value in talking about the practices of and challenges to a profession that nearly everyone connects to in some way. (The house was packed, which indicates the level of interest.) So many of the problems readers, viewers, and listeners express with media stem from a misunderstanding of its core function and the difference between news reporting and commentary; the panel spent a good amount of time Thursday night talking about that, and it was explored even more deeply during a related Charlotte Talks episode in the morning. Host Mike Collins asked Observer editor Sherry Chisenhall why newspapers continue to publish editorials if readers have trouble making the distinction. Chisenhall had trouble answering. In her defense, so would anyone, because the real reason is: tradition. Nothing requires it.
Part of the problem, though, is that professional journalists have worked for decades on sets of variable standards that digital media have thrown into even more chaos. Reporting the facts as well as you can is a given. But how do you explain your outlet’s policies on using unnamed sources in stories? They differ from company to company, sometimes story to story. What’s the difference between “off the record” and “on background”? What exactly do those terms mean? There was no agreement on the panel, and if journalists can’t settle on the definitions, they’re effectively useless.
How does relating news via Twitter differ from publishing it any other way? Legally, publication is publication. Practically, Twitter can be a grave danger to journalists. Crump related a story about his reporting on Cam Newton’s auto accident in late 2014. He was on the phone with a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police source, discussing an unrelated matter, when he heard the rumor about the wreck. The police source confirmed, and Crump tweeted it out. It was retweeted more than 300,000 times, and Crump himself was cited as a source for national news reports. His younger colleagues thought that was all kinds of rad. Crump, a veteran journalist, was consumed by dread. What if his one, unnamed source had been wrong? “There’s nobody red-inking your tweets,” Crump said.
Journalists, in other words, are trying to figure it all out as they go, a conclusion that a similar panel reached last year at one of our #discussCLT events. There’s no roadmap, and, weirdly enough, Google maps seems to be malfunctioning on this one. You can’t really blame professional journalists for having trouble finding their way. But you can’t blame consumers, either, for their confusion over just what journalism is trying to accomplish these days, and for occasionally falling for a well-executed hoax. “I used to think that Stephen Colbert’s ‘truthiness’ was clever satire,” Spanberg said. “Now I’m a little petrified.” Aren’t we all?
There’s something else to think about here that went undiscussed during the panel. No one who works in media can ignore the effects of insane conspiracy theories that have not merely sprung into being in the dark shadows of the web but emanated from the White House, the halls of Congress, the people literally in charge of running the country. Pizzagate may be the most extreme example, but it’s hardly the only one or even the most significant; the President built his political career on a canard proven multiple times to be false.
Mainstream news organizations and the likes of Snopes debunk these theories again and again, and a segment of the population not only declines to be convinced but actually digs in deeper, a phenomenon that political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler years ago dubbed “the backfire effect.” When journalists and publishers talk about accountability and re-establishing trust with readers and viewers, as they did at the Levine Museum, they assume that people are fundamentally rational creatures capable of soberly assessing information and basing our views on reliable evidence.
What if we’re not? What if two decades of widespread access to the Internet, plus a decade of widely used smartphones and social media, have warped the way people process information and their relationships to themselves and the world around them? There’s a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that social media is literally addictive; notifications of likes and shares actually send small amounts of dopamine through users’ brains, creating what a former Facebook vice president recently called “dopamine-driven feedback loops.” (The loop is what distinguishes web-based media from TV and radio, which are mainly passive, one-way experiences; the thrill of notifications, the validation of your online existence, is a big part of the addiction.)
If a “like” gives you a dopamine hit, imagine the rush that comes with reinforcement of your belief—amplified via Twitter or Facebook or 4chan—that you’re part of a small, exclusive community that knows THE TRUTH about what was happening in that pizza joint, or what shadowy cabal of globalists is REALLY behind the Steele dossier. It explains why a segment of the population grows more convinced of such theories as they’re repeatedly debunked and sink deeper into psychotic fantasy; sober assessments of the available evidence don’t give you that kind of high. It also explains why “the Deep State” is such an ingenious villain. The lack of evidence of its existence just demonstrates how deep it is.
How do journalists like the fine group gathered at the Levine on Thursday fight that? They don’t. They can’t. There’s no way to reach people that far gone without sacrificing the ethical foundation of the profession. They, and the good people who write for Charlotte magazine and other local media, will continue to do their jobs and do them well. But for people willing to lend credence to the Alex Joneses of the world, fact-checks and transparency regarding sources are just so much medicine administered to the dead. We’re going to have to get used to the idea of responsible journalism as its own reward, not necessarily as a product that sells because it’s what people want.