Fake news? What it is and isn’t, and how journalists fight it


Editor’s note: Daily Universe reporters Kaitlyn Bancroft and Lauren Malner traveled to Washington D.C. to explore press freedom and the First Amendment in today’s increasingly volatile media landscape. This installment addresses the state of U.S. press freedom under the Trump administration. Second in a series.

See also: “How social media platforms and fact-checkers fight fake news” 

WASHINGTON — The sky was clear, traffic was jammed and Mike Walter was driving to work on Sept. 11, 2001.

Then a senior correspondent for USA Today Live, Walter was anxious to cover the terrorist attacks in New York and grew frustrated with the slow traffic. Trying to keep calm, he rolled down his window and put his arm out — just in time to watch a jet crash into the Pentagon.

Walter gave several interviews about this experience to organizations such as the BBC, CBS and CNN in the weeks that followed. About six months after 9/11, he was contacted by a French journalist who said Walter had been quoted in the best-selling French book “L’Effroyable Imposture” (“The Horrible Fraud”) by Thierry Meyssan, who was “arguably the leading promoter of an alternative explanation to the Pentagon destruction,” according to the book “Debunking 9/11 Myths.”

Meyssan, who never visited the U.S. for research, argued the Pentagon attack was self-inflicted by the U.S. military to justify future wars. Despite being largely denounced by French newspapers, the book sold over 200,000 copies in France, was translated into 18 languages, was published in the U.S. as “9/11: The Big Lie” and its claims were repeated in the conspiracy theory documentary “Loose Change.”

Meyssan’s book quoted Walter from a CNN interview in which Walter said, “I looked out my window and saw this plane, this jet, an American Airlines jet, coming. And I thought, ‘This doesn’t add up. It’s really low.’ And I saw it. I mean, it was like a cruise missile with wings. It went right there and slammed right into the Pentagon.”

Meyssan, however, “was kind enough to shorten (the quote) to ‘It was like a cruise missile,'” Walter said.

Conspiracy theorists began using Walter’s out-of-context quote to support the idea the Pentagon was hit by an actual cruise missile rather than a plane. Years later, Walter still receives angry tweets and emails about the quote, like this message he received in 2018: “Mike, how are you sleeping these days? Do your Pentagon lies haunt you? Do the souls of the 3,000 murdered U.S. citizens haunt you? Do the souls of the millions dead from the war on terror haunt you, or does your cushy job make it all ok?”

“I can say pretty unequivocally that I feel like I’m first when it comes to being accused of fake news,” Walter said, now a news anchor for CGTN-America, while recounting the experience at the 2018 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Conference in Washington, D.C.

Walter is hardly the only one who has been affected by “fake news,” a term popularized by President Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election. Since then, U.S. adults estimate 44 percent of news from newspapers, TV or radio is inaccurate, according to a 2018 Gallup poll; they also believe more than a third is misinformation (defined in the poll as false or inaccurate information presented as if it were true). Of news seen on social media, Americans believe 64 percent is inaccurate and 65 percent is misinformation.

Speaking with Walter at the AEJMC Conference, News TEGNA Corps Vice President Ellen Crooke said when the president doesn’t trust the media, it’s a problem; when the people don’t trust the media, however, it’s a crisis, although “that crisis started well before this current administration.”

“Why was Trump able to convince so many people not to trust journalists?” she said. “Because the seed was already there.”

What is fake news?

Part of the problem with fake news is defining it.

For example, while presenting her findings on fake news sourcing patterns at the AEJMC Conference, Michigan State University researcher Soo Young Shin defined fake news as stories that read like news but rely largely on other media as sources.

“This shows what kind of era we are living in,” she said. “Objectivity is not important in shaping public opinion.”

However, Deborah Dwyer, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who presented her research on ethical listening at the same event, said there aren’t many “true definitions” of fake news; rather, it’s a euphemism that has lost its meaning because the White House has commandeered it.

She also referenced the 2018 Reuters Institute Digital News Report that says the public’s definition of fake news includes poor reporting “and that media companies and journalists are the ones responsible for fixing the fake news problem,” she said.

Researcher Craig Robertson from Michigan State University, and Rachel Mourao, an assistant journalism professor at Michigan State University, also presented their findings on the producers of fake news to a room full of journalism educators. Robertson said whether something is fake news comes down to its intentions. He distinguished between misinformation when someone doesn’t know the information they’re spreading is false and malicious disinformation when someone deliberately spreads false information.

“I think fake news, as sort of the public and politicians and general people understand it, is more akin to disinformation and propaganda,” Robertson said.

Dwyer added the term “fake news” often gets lobbed at media when people don’t like what the media is saying. Since Trump has weaponized the term “fake news,” there’s a need for two different terms: one defined as misinformation and one defined as people simply disliking what the media is saying.

‘They claim to be something else’

Robertson said contrary to popular belief, fake news websites are typically quite open about their beliefs, biases and agendas. In fact, out of the 50 websites he and Mourao analyzed, two-thirds were “extremely open” about their biases and political views. He said these websites take activist stances, with their “About Us” sections saying they’re trying to inform, educate or inspire grassroots movements.

“They do not show any intents to deceive people. They’re very open about what they’re trying to do,” Robertson said.

However, Mourao clarified this finding refers only to their sample of sites and cannot be generalized beyond that. She said the researchers believe the sites are mainly domestic and they were selected because they are “stable,” meaning they are not ephemeral sites that are created and die within a few days of bombarding propaganda on social media. Because these types of sites did not crop up in their sample, Mourao said she cannot speak directly to their characteristics and motives.

Another common theme Robertson and Mourao found across their sample of websites was “an appeal to subjective truth,” Robertson said, such as promoting the Constitution or the Bible. Many even define themselves by how they’re “diametrically opposed” to mainstream media. They believe their subjective perspectives will bring out truths the mainstream media is hiding.

“They’re putting out content that’s coming from their genuinely held beliefs. I don’t think they’re trying to deceive or manipulate people,” Robertson said.

That’s why the lines become blurry when these types of websites are labeled as “fake news.” Since these websites distribute people’s genuine beliefs, not malicious, knowingly-false information, any type of censorship means “you’re kind of getting into the field of censoring people’s points of view and perspectives and beliefs,” he said.

“They don’t claim to be mainstream journalists. They don’t claim to be journalism,” Robertson said. “They claim to be something else.”

Regardless of its definition or its creators, why do people keep consuming, sharing and believing fake news?

Robert McKeever, an associate journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, presented his research on the effects of misinformation at the AEJMC Conference. He said individual differences and beliefs affect what people believe in the news. People are also more likely to remember myths than corrections because incorporating new facts demands more cognitive effort.

In short, “the truth is not a serum that actually corrects the misinformation,” he said.

Fighting fake news

Senior Atlantic editor Christi Parsons told journalism educators though the phrase “fake news” can be scary when it’s used to justify violence, hostility and a blatant disregard for facts, it worries her when “the press starts acting like the enemy that the executive branch wants to cast us as.” Therefore, journalists need to stand their ground as they figure out the next steps.

She also said journalists need to keep doing their jobs by telling real stories and not giving in to pressure to do things that aren’t real journalism.

NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker said journalists can combat fake news simply by being good journalists. She also said it’s important for journalists to admit when they’re wrong, question themselves and “quadruple check” everything.

“You’re always going to have to defend being a journalist,” Welker added. “And the way to do that is just by going back to the basics.”

While speaking at the 2018 AEJMC Conference, University of Maryland adjunct lecturer Alison Burns identified several ways journalists defend their profession. (Kaitlyn Bancroft)
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