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The Media's Credibility Is the Problem, Not the Fake News

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Remember when we told you about Google’s plan to shut down fake news sites and how Facebook helped spread fake news by not filtering its content? According to myth-busting news site Snopes, fake news might not be the real problem at all, reported Big Think.

In an interview with Backchannel, Snopes Editor-in-Chief Brooke Binkowski doesn’t place the blame for the spread of false news on social media or search sites: she puts it on the mainstream media. “The problem, Binkowski believes, is that the public has lost faith in the media broadly — therefore no media outlet is considered credible any longer,” Backchannel reports.

That faith has been lost as internet news sites have grown at the expense of traditional news media. “As the business of news has grown tougher, many outlets have been stripped of the resources they need for journalists to do their jobs correctly.” Backchannel reports. It's referring to widespread budget cuts in print and digital news media across the country, from media giants like Hearst and Salon to local papers. These budgets cuts not only reduce the number of reporters on staff, but also editors, fact checkers and other staffers who can help catch mistakes. Binkowski, who is an award-winning journalist, puts it this way: “When you’re on your fifth story of the day and there’s no editor because the editor’s been fired and there’s no fact checker so you have to Google it yourself and you don’t have access to any academic journals or anything like that, you will screw stories up.”

Snopes founder David Mikkelson confirms that, explaining that “the fictions and fabrications that comprise fake news are but a subset of the larger bad news phenomenon, which also encompasses many forms of shoddy, un-researched, error-filled, and deliberately misleading reporting that do a disservice to everyone.”

While the mainstream media does print corrections when they find errors, they are often small and not publicized. That is a perfect storm for breeding mistrust in consumers -- and it is why over 60% of Americans don’t trust mainstream media according to poll company Gallup.

So what’s the solution to rebuilding trust in news? “The solution to this problem isn't less content; it's better curation,” Queens College professor Brian Hughes told CNN. He explains:

In the 1950s, the FCC regulated the television industry with a program it called the "Fairness Doctrine." The thinking went like this: With only three networks to choose from, viewers needed reliably balanced news and opinion. So, if a television station aired one perspective on a controversial topic, it was obliged to air an opposing view. As a country, we should look at the possibility of adopting a digital equivalent to the Fairness Doctrine.

Until that happens, we’ll just have to be savvy media consumers and learn to spot fake news. Thankfully, according to Binkowski, it’s really easy to spot. “'Honestly, most of the fake news is incredibly easy to debunk because it’s such obvious bullshit,” she says. “A site will have something buried somewhere on it that says, ‘This is intended to be satire. Don’t sue us,’” Backchannel reports. Snopes offers a full guide to spotting fake news. Generally speaking, fake news is “fabricated stories set loose via social media with clickbait headlines and tantalizing images, intended for no purpose other than to fool readers and generate advertising revenues for their publishers,” according to Snopes.

Another way to fact check, according to Backchannel commenter John E Branch, Jr., is to not use Google. “Try a different search engine now and then. Though Google’s results are to some degree tailored to each user, its basic ranking of results may be broadly the same for everyone, meaning that if 50 journalists all check Google they’re probably all getting the same view of the subject. I often check Bing, and sometimes check Yahoo, for the sake of a possibly different perspective.”
Truthfully, our best defense against fake news for the foreseeable future is to simply call it out. Or, as Binkowski told Backchannel, “The only thing that we are doing that we can really keep doing is: just say the truth again and again and again and again and again, and just keep doing it.”

When I sat down to write about media manipulation five years ago, my original point was to show how publicists can direct and influence the news, reported Observer.
What I found, of course, was that this kind of manipulation is only part of a larger system—that the outlets themselves are the real sources of manipulation. More, I found that these outlets were simply responding to the economic realities of the news business, just as newspapers a generation ago were driven to do it by the invention of the penny press and intense competition. On top of all that was one sad fact—and it’s expressed in the cheerful comments section of any inaccurate, disingenuous and hoaxed article: people don’t really care.

What I mean is that the narrative of a few greedy publishers creating fake news out of whole cloth is wrong. That is not the problem. The problem is us. All of us.

Our media environment is one in which nobody pays for anything and all are aghast that the quality of the product has precipitously declined. No one subscribes to anything, and then we’re shocked that most of what seems to “find us” is extreme, divisive or exaggerated. Even this column, which I have the luxury of knowing will be read by a large number of email subscribers, will be partly shaped around an “angle” and a headline that will induce it to be shared on social media.

“If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” observed Henry Jenkins of MIT’s Media Lab. That is the reality of our media system. It’s a fact that indicts publishers, social media platforms as well as their users and readers. In other words: everyone.

Andy Borowitz knows that a huge portion of his traffic comes from unthinking clicks that confuse satire with real headlines. The Observer knows that the headline “Dave Chappelle Told Jokes About Politics” is going to do less well than its sensational headline about him defending Trump and trashing Clinton (just as TMZ knew they could get traffic out of baiting Chappelle into responding).

It’s obnoxious, certainly, but let’s not pretend that internet publishers invented confirmation bias. It’s been a problem for us humans for quite some time now.

The 1950s’ Walter Winchell’s mostly fake column and radio show were riddled with errors and salacious scandals. The real difference today is that instead of one column with a few dozen items in it, those items are now broken apart into individual stories. Each one of those stories is designed to be shared and can spread on its own. Instead of one syndicated gossip columnist competing with a few other gossip columnists at newspapers with paying subscribers, we now have tens of thousands of gossip-mongers competing with thousands of other gossip-mongers (millions in all), trying to be heard over each other. Each is unconstrained in how much they publish, none is deterred by the threat of losing subscribers or advertisers (because they don’t have subscribers and the advertisers buy through exchanges). And again, on top of this, consumers have shown repeatedly that not only do they not care about the accuracy of what they read, they are willing participants in the spread of this misinformation—because it helps them get followers and interactions on their own social media platforms.

Fake news isn’t something new that’s being done to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Just as we’ve always done it to ourselves—the only change is the scale, the speed and the sanctimony.

Still, one can imagine the effect all this has on our culture or on our politics. Why do good work when studies show that this is actually a deterrent to social sharing? Anger is the most viral emotion, so no wonder so much of what we see and hear pisses us off. Nuance doesn’t lend itself to clickable headlines, so everything seems divided and partisan. If readers are only skimming articles and videos before sharing, of course politicians and businesses are going to get away with outright lying and shamelessness.

I said a few weeks ago that the solution to this problem begins at home. Instead of railing about the media, we ought to each begin with our own role in that system. For readers, that means evaluating your own habits. Consuming less, paying for more, resisting the urge to share—this creates incentives for better information and less fake news. For creators and journalists, it means publishing less, it means filtering your work through fewer intermediaries and it means thinking longer term. For me personally, that has meant relying on email instead of social to connect with my readers, focusing on writing my books instead of churning out more articles. For entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley folks, it means looking at the marketplace you have helped create and seeing what might be done. Mark Zuckerberg needs to take his head out of the sand, Twitter should reconsider its 140 character limit, Outbrain and Taboola need to own up to the fact that an enormous part of their business relies on the propagation of bogus news. More people need to follow the lead of folks like Brian Lam and build media properties that cut through the noise instead of adding to it.

It’s a complicated problem and there is more than enough blame to go around. Saying that ‘they’ are the cause of it doesn’t do anything about it. Outrage and finger pointing not only doesn’t make a difference, it is the problem.

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