How to Fact-Check 'Fake News' Web sites
A century ago, American journalist Elbert Hubbard, author of “A Message to Garcia,” wrote the definition of an editor as: “A person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.” How times have changed: Now it is not only more difficult to distinguish wheat from chaff, but we are being confounded by a president who calls any published statement he disagrees with “fake news,” even as his own fact-checked statements are found to be falsehoods 73 percent of the time. During the election campaign, PolitiFact found only 15 percent of Trump’s statements were even partly true.
We know democracy is best served by informed voters. One of the key objectives of United Vision for Idaho is to help provide clear, accurate information on important issues, and to help voters distinguish fact from opinion so they may respond appropriately to key legislative issues at all levels, and to make their own best choices when they go to the polls. As President John F. Kennedy said, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”
Even before the Trump “fake news” onslaught, the American media landscape was undergoing a shift, particularly as the advent of cable, satellite, and Internet and social media outlets were making it more difficult to distinguish factual reporting from opinion and commentary, or even from outright lies. The blurred line between information and opinion was the focus of a March 2013 Pew Center report on “The State of the News Media 2013: An Annual Report on American Journalism.” To be sure, opinion has always been part of the American media landscape. In 1721, when Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James started the New England Courant, arguably the first American newspaper, he used it as a platform from which he launched countless attacks on the ruling powers in New England, assuring himself both editorial independence and commercial success. He railed against pirates and the undue influences of Cotton and Increase Mather, two Puritan minister brothers who instigated the Salem Witchcraft Trials, and published literary essays by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison from The Spectator to flesh out the straightforward reports of more mundane and less controversial ship schedules and cargo.
Audience Dwindles; Credibility Shrinks
Part of the change has been brought on by the increased emphasis on profit at the expense of content. In 1983, 90 percent of American print and broadcast media were owned and controlled by 50 different companies. Today, at least 90 percent of what we read, watch, or listen is dominated by these six media conglomerates:
- News Corporation
- The Walt Disney Company
- Time Warner
- CBS Corporation
At the same time, the advance of Internet delivery of news, and wider availability of cable and satellite TV, get more of their news online than from radio and newspapers combined. While this may be good news for trees, the shift has had its own downside. Last year, Pew, in its biennial study of news consumption habits, found 23 percent of people living in the United States said they’d read a print newspaper the day before. That’s half the number who did so in 2000, when nearly 50 percent read a paper the day before. Twenty-nine percent reported reading a newspaper in any format.
This decline or demise of many once-famous, well-respected and highly credible newspapers, among them the Hartford Times, the Chicago Daily News and the Rocky Mountain News, and news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. As the print media have disappeared or fallen upon hard times, the survivors that have not adapted to electronic delivery have become practically irrelevant as primary sources of information, especially information at the local level. That is obvious in Idaho, which, in its relatively short history as a state, has never been a particularly rich media environment. As Pew Center research consistently confirms, local TV outlets are also beginning to show the effects of economic reality and popular demand. Rather than devote the time and reporting resources required to research and cover social and government issues, local television increases presentation of the staples – traffic, sports and weather – which make up about 40 percent of local news content. Complex issues, such as science and technology, education, and politics, are hardly addressed at all.
At the same time, cable news outlets devote more than 60 percent of their airtime to commentary and less than 40 percent to reporting (reflecting both audience demand and the need to spend less). And more of what reporting remains is coverage of what is sometimes described as “popular culture,” rather than on events or activities that actually affect and involve us. CNN now devotes less than half its programming to news. At Fox, it’s less than 45 percent. MSNBC, which is cast as a competitor to both, in fact brands itself as the liberal “place for politics,” and devotes a mere 15 percent of its programming to “hard news” reporting.
Cable News Falters Too
The rush to irrelevancy has not been lost on the audience. Nearly one-third—31 percent—of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to, according to the Pew survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults early this year. The primary concern for people who gave up on an outlet seems to be quality. When asked which they noticed more, fewer stories or less complete stories, far more people (61 percent) said the latter. And those most likely to have walked away are better educated, wealthier and older than those who did not—in other words, they are people who tend to be most prone to consume and pay for news.
Turning away from the diligent coverage of real news comes at a cost, as CNN is learning. There, viewership has declined since 2008. Four years ago, nearly a quarter of Americans (24 percent in the Poynter study) said they regularly watched CNN. In the most recent survey, the CNN audience had fallen to 16 percent (21 percent watch Fox and 15 percent watch MSNBC). While there is obviously a market for those who tend to follow sources that agree with or reinforce their own beliefs, 64 percent said they “prefer getting political news from sources that don’t have a particular point of view, compared with 26 percent who said they would rather get news from sources that share their political perspective. This is on par with opinions since 2006.”
Making matters worse, another Pew study found more people who now get their news online, rather than in print or broadcast, admit they have shared “fake news” via social media, whether knowingly or not. The “instant” spread of information, especially false information, simply confirms a notion often attributed (perhaps falsely) to Mark Twain, that “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”
Nevertheless, and countering the Trump assertion that American media are “fake news,” those media are still widely trusted, according to a survey by Morning Consult, a media consulting firm. The study, in PDF format, is available here.
The UVIdaho Blog is part of our mission to serve Idaho voters by filling in the information gaps, shun blather, and clarify what is often a gap between information and speculation. In our Blog posts, we do not publish unsourced information. When possible, we back-check published reports and seek confirmation from a variety of resources, which we identify, to help our readers weigh the quality and credibility of not only what we publish, but what you may read or see or hear elsewhere. We hope you will tell others about our effort and guide them to the UVIdaho Blog. We also hope you will consider these guidelines in your quest for news.
You’re probably familiar with the Journalist’s Questions, the “Five Ws” of journalism: Who, what, when, where, and why. And, to the extent possible: What does this mean to me? In addition, thanks to Mike Bugeja, a former United Press International reporter and now director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University we should also apply the “Four Ds of journalism:”
• Doubt (healthy skepticism that questions everything),
• Detect (the nose for news” in relentless pursuit of the truth),
• Discern (priority in applying fairness, balance, and objectivity in reporting), and
• Demand (free access to information and freedom of speech). A truly balanced news report takes into account the limits of what is known at the time of reporting, and identifies what is known (and how it is known) as distinct from what is not known.
Speculation is not information, and thus is not news. Opinion, while separate from a straightforward account of events, is based upon the information obtained in pursuit of the news. To be considered valid, opinion should also be constrained by those “Four Ds,” and not wander off into the thicket of rumor, conjecture, or, worst of all, conspiracy theories. The information used to bolster opinion should be confined to the facts relevant to the argument being presented. In this way, opinion can justifiably be weighted to a liberal, or “progressive” set of values, or to a “conservative” set of values. The facts, however, should stand on their own.
The Best of What’s Left
So where do Americans get their news? Here is the list gleaned from results of the Pew Research studies and from News Trust, an affiliate of The Poynter Institute, the Florida-based nonprofit journalism training institute. News Trust regularly reviews content from a broad selection of American news resources to determine the most credible, trustworthy sources, peer-ranked on the basis of such criteria as immediacy, accuracy, clarity, identification of sources, and perspective.
The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com
The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/usa
Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/
Los Angeles Times http://www.latimes.com/
Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/home-page
Atlantic Monthly http://www.theatlantic.com/
Mother Jones http://www.motherjones.com/
Rolling Stone http://www.rollingstone.com/
Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
Informed Comment http://www.juancole.com/
Daily Kos http://www.dailykos.com/
Robert Reich http://robertreich.org/
Think Progress http://thinkprogress.org/
BBC News http://www.bbc.com/news/world/us_and_canada/
ABC News http://abcnews.go.com/US
CBS News http://www.cbsnews.com/
NPR: All Things Considered http://www.npr.org/programs/all-things-considered/
Bloomberg News http://www.bloomberg.com/news/
The Associated Press http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/fronts/HOME?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME
Fox News Deemed Worse Than No News At All
As good as good can be in news coverage, the opposite is much worse. About one-quarter of Americans who responded to media surveys in the past three years (21 to 28 percent, depending upon the poll, with a 3-point margin of error in most reporting) put themselves at a serious knowledge disadvantage by relying upon sources that are not on the list above. The worst, in terms of credibility, verification of information sources, reliability, and trustworthiness, is Fox News Channel, ironically a subsidiary of the Fox Entertainment Group, which is part of the media and entertainment conglomerate controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Fox News was established in 1996, conceived to compete with CNN. Its founding chairman and longtime chief executive officer was Roger Ailes, who was President Richard M. Nixon’s primary media consultant in the 1970s. Ailes was ousted in 2016 after a series of allegations of sexual impropriety with members of the Fox on-air staff.
The origins of Fox are outlined in a 318-page memo titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News, archived in the Nixon Presidential Library, Ailes was almost prescient about what would become the current media landscape. He wrote: “Today television news is watched more often than people read newspapers, than people listen to the radio, than people read or gather any other form of communication. The reason: People are lazy. With television you just sit—watch—listen. The thinking is done for you.”
Ailes’s take on what is now the Fox News audience is supported by the findings of a 2011 Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind Poll that found Fox News viewers were less informed about current events than people who didn't follow the news at all. The survey had asked current events questions like "Which party has the most seats in the House of Representatives?" and also asked what source of news people followed. The Fox viewers' current events scores were in the basement. This finding was immediately trumpeted by rival media—by Fox, not so much—and has since become known as the Fox News effect. It conjures the image of Fox News as a black hole that sucks facts out of viewers' heads. Contrary to its logo claim of “fair and balanced,” Fox credibility, never very high, has actually fallen a further 9 percent in the past three years. A Public Policy Polling annual survey on media credibility reported in February this year that, just like Fox News ratings, credibility was at a record low, with 46 percent of viewers saying they do not trust it.
Part of Fox’s problem is in featuring commentators – people with a definite point of view – and presenting their comments as news, often with serious factual errors, editing video to delete content that does not comport with the Fox point of view, and outright lies, often taken verbatim from far-right personalities such as Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Glen Beck, and Anne Coulter, without verification. Examples of these abuses of the most basic tenets of journalism and fair play were abundant during the 2012 presidential election campaign, and, although all media make mistakes, Fox has been notoriously poor about providing corrections.
To be fair, no media outlet enjoys a very high level of trust. And there is some built-in distrust of sources depending upon the political perspective of viewers. For example, none of those polled who associated themselves with the Democratic Party said they trust Fox News. The self-identified Republicans trusted Fox the most. “We continue to find that Democrats trust most TV news sources other than Fox, while Republicans don’t trust anything except Fox,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling. “News preferences are very polarizing along party lines.” In the first PPP poll, Fox was deemed credible by 49 percent of those surveyed. (Conversely, the most trusted TV news source, PBS, was rated as credible by 52 percent.) The most recent survey had a margin of error of plus/minus 3.5 percent.
PolitiFact’s running file of Donald Trump lies is here.
Politico’s report on the effect of lies from the Oval Office is here.
The Poynter Institute’s Media Trust report on the impact of the Trump Administration’s assault on media credibility is here.
A Huffington Post report on the post-election media revival is here.
The Pew Center’s 2013 report on where Americans get their news is here.
The Pew Center’s 2016 report on how the media has responded to the changes is here.
The 10 best resources for fact-checking are here.
The Pew Center’s 2014 report on political polarization and media trust is here.
The Pew Center report on how people are turning away from television as a news source is here.
The Farleigh Dickinson University/PublicMind poll and analysis of how some media actually make people less informed is here.
The Huffington Post report on steep declines in Fox News credibility is here.
The Pew study showing increased sharing of “fake news” through social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, is here.