Fake news. We’ve used this phrase so many times in the past two months that it’s almost lost meaning — partly because it can mean so many different things. Depending on who you talk to, “fake…
An excellent, illuminating, calm and smart article by Brooke Borel, whose career in journalism started with fact-checking:
Fact-checking is key to journalism — it’s a skill and a service that’s instrumental in providing the information to the public. My first job in journalism was as a fact-checker and, later, a research editor; as a journalist I’ve had many fact-checkers save me from dumb mistakes. I even wrote a book on how to do it well: “The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking.” Fact-checking politicians’ statements or articles after they’ve published — a close relative of the type of fact-checking that goes on behind the scenes in journalism — has been instrumental in holding politicians accountable. I know what fact-checking can do, and how important it is. But to combat fake news, it’s simply not enough.
Ms. Borel goes on to give a brief and fascinating history of news and facts, which I knew virtually nothing about:
The history of news is filled with examples of how powerful groups have worked to control information. History also provides examples of how newsmakers and readers have reacted to false stories. In the 14th through 16th centuries in Europe, for example, kings, the church and international merchants ran the earliest organized news networks. With this power came control. These groups were “so concerned with accuracy and corroboration that you can see very early an unstated code of journalistic ethics being developed,” said Andrew Pettegree, a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
These powerful figures needed accurate information in order to make informed decisions. As Pettegree writes in “The Invention of News”: “Lives, fortunes, even the fate of kingdoms could depend on acting on the right information.”
But at the time, newspapers focused on foreign news; news writers weren’t too keen on turning clear-eyed reports locally, for fear of angering the powerful groups that supported the publishers. Instead, local news came from political pamphlets, newsletters and word of mouth.
In the early United States, the story is a little different, said Andie Tucher, a historian and journalist at Columbia University. At first, political parties controlled the press, using it in partisan fights. Then, in the 1830s, the first American commercialized papers emerged. These penny presses claimed to be independent from politics, and they published real news next to “humbugs” like the Great Moon Hoax, which claimed that an English astronomer had discovered fantastical beasts living on the moon.
It occurs to me major print media might like to replace their newly discovered use of the word “lie” with “humbug.” It’s so much more contemptuous, isn’t it?
And then Ms. Borel gets down to the nitty-gritty: how the hell can the media cope with fake news and present the facts of life to a public who doesn’t care about them?
Media outlets keep trying to debunk fake news. This won’t work, particularly for readers who have already decided that the traditional press is fake news — and, fair or not, partisan. Research suggests that the more partisan a topic, the more likely people who identify strongly with one side will double down on their argument even if they are presented with facts that counter it.
Some key points I’ve excerpted:
Maybe, instead, the media should do a better job of distinguishing real news from fake news, to regain readers’ trust.
Maybe the news should stop trying so hard to entertain.
Political reporting could improve by refusing to force false balance — an attempt at impartiality and objectivity that can backfire…Presenting politicians’ statements and simply letting readers decide what’s true doesn’t work when one side is lying.
Refocusing coverage may help. According to Emily Thorson, a political scientist at Boston College, there is one area where people will change their minds when faced with the facts: policy, particularly when it isn’t perceived to be partisan. By covering policies rather than candidates’ antics, the press may be able to persuade with facts after all.
Ah ha! That excerpt above–especially the bolded portion [my bolding]–is the nittiest of the grittiest. It offers hope to all of us needing desperately to believe that it is possible to affect with actual facts voters who have been apparently content to vote fact-free.
Not only is Ms. Borel’s article clear-sighted, full of facts and optimistic, it relieves me of the heavy burden of deploring the ignoramuses who voted for The Twittler. If there’s hope for them, I’m all for it.
Thank you, Ms. Borel. I think you’re great.
P.S. And gee, I forgot to thank FiveThirtyEight’s Significant Digits for introducing me to this article.