What media professionals can do to cultivate audience trust in the fake news era
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Each year, the U.S.-based Pulitzer Prize-winning news site PolitiFact bestows the dubious honor of the “Lie of the Year” award to recognize a misrepresentation that especially stands out that year in either its audaciousness or its broader social impact. “Because of its powerful symbolism in an election year filled with rampant and outrageous lying—PolitiFact is naming Fake News the 2016 winner,” the editors wrote. “Fake news is the boldest sign of a post-truth society. When we can’t agree on basic facts—or even that there are such things as facts—how do we talk to each other?”
Meanwhile, the U.K.-based Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its word of the year for 2016. The sobering definition they established for this addition to our vocabulary is: “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
These cultural barometers from two continents illustrate the ominous shift we’ve experienced in the past couple years. Most journalists agree that “Fake News” has emerged as a very real and serious threat to the reporting of objective news around the world, but what can we possibly do at this point to combat this dangerous phenomenon?
The Impact of Fake News
Unfortunately, fake news is more than just an interesting historical phenomenon—it is a corrosive force that does serious damage on multiple fronts.
For starters, fake news undermines the credibility of the legitimate news media. When news consumers are confronted with a barrage of stories online—some of which are objective news stories and some of which are complete fiction—they are more likely to view everything they read with a similar level of skepticism and mistrust.
Sure enough, trust in the news media sunk to its lowest levels last year in the history of Gallup polling on this question. Just 32% of those polled in the U.S. said they had a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the news media to report the news accurately and fairly. As NPR noted, “that’s down from 40% in 2015, 50% in 2005 and 72% in 1976, when investigative journalism was still on a pedestal following the Watergate scandal.”
Second, fake news leads to deeper political divisions and risks undermining the integrity of democratic elections.
“Fake news represents a threat to democracy if people are deliberately using it on social media platforms to spread misinformation around an election,” said Damian Collins, a British lawmaker who is leading a parliamentary probe into the fake news problem in the U.K.
Most observers are familiar with the role that fake news had in the 2016 U.S. elections, but this is a truly global phenomenon. Fabricated news stories led to significant confusion recently in Germany, when false reports of domestic terror incidents circulated online. In France, Facebook took the unusual step of targeting30,000 accounts to try to crack down on fake news reports being published during the 2017 presidential campaign. A Japanese website touched off horror in that country when it published a fake story involving a violent crime that never occurred.
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