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Fake News at Face Value: Uncovering Truth in a Changing Media Landscape

News & Features | November 13, 2018

Two years ago, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. What has followed has been a mad dash to understand precisely why this happened. The American media, both an enemy and an ally of Trump’s, has since turned inward to reflect on its role in the tumult of the past two years.

Katherine Tully-McManus, a Tufts alumna who works as a staff writer at Roll Call, a newspaper that reports on the US Congress, believes that the role of journalism in the 2016 election was mixed. “In many ways, political reporters did an incredible job of dissecting President Trump during the 2016 campaign. But there were definitely shortcomings in infrastructure within newsrooms [regarding] how to report on things that were proven to be untrue,” she explained. “If you’re standing in the press pen at a Trump rally, you’re live tweeting. But in that medium, there’s not necessarily the space to fact-check.”

Fact-checking presented itself as a unique challenge in the 2016 election, as Trump repeatedly Tweeted and stated falsehoods, such as his claim that $6 billion went missing from the State Department while under the direction of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Tully-McManus pointed to the dilemma that the media faced in these scenarios. “How do you address false claims without amplifying the false claim? The media has had to reevaluate how they approach political journalism,” she said.

This problem has persisted throughout the duration of Trump’s presidency, as he has continued to state falsehoods as facts. For example, he recently claimed that a caravan of Central American migrants who are traveling toward the Mexico-US border were invited to do so by the Democratic party. This claim, along with many others made by Trump and his administration about the caravan, has been widely debunked. Nevertheless, they continue to dominate headlines.

Tasha Oren, a professor in the Film and Media Studies Department at Tufts, points to a greater strategy behind Trump’s attack on the truth. “What he’s done is really genius. By beginning to state things that are absolutely, provably false and refusing to acknowledge that, you’re training people to stop thinking of evidence as truth. Separating fact from truth is an incredibly powerful political tool. So now you can say the caravan is coming for your job, and it becomes truth. It’s fact or not, who cares? Because it feels true. And that’s extremely dangerous.”

Different media outlets have repeatedly called Trump out for his false statements. In response, Trump has labeled many of these outlets “fake news.” By Trump’s standards, “fake news” is not simply news that contains false information, but also news that he disagrees with. He has repeatedly used the term to refer to news outlets that criticize him, such as CNN and his tweet that referred to “the Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People.” The term, and its two different meanings, have since become a part of the American lexicon.

The popularization of the term “fake news” has also coincided with record-breaking levels of distrust in the media. A Gallup poll released in September of 2016, just months before election day, found that Republicans’ trust in the media was at its lowest rate in 20 years: just 14 percent. Comparatively, in 2015, 32 percent of Republicans said they trusted the media. The report noted that while trust in the media has gradually eroded over time, Republicans’ feeling that the media unfairly targeted Trump, as well as Trump’s own attacks on the media, likely caused this particularly sharp decline.

However, negative election coverage was not focused solely on Trump. Clinton made headlines after she was discovered to have used a private email server while she was Secretary of State. This scandal became a major focus of election coverage, as Tufts political science professor Jeffrey Berry, pointed out. “It [was] probably not journalism’s finest hour… It’s clear that they gave far too much coverage to the Hillary Clinton email scandal. She was at fault, but it [was] not something of central consequence to the function of the American government.”

The Clinton email scandal was also a common subject of truly fake news—stories that deliberately reported false information. Many of these falsified stories were created by Russian bots and spread on social media, and their proliferation has been widely criticized as unfairly influencing the election. But hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs are not the only potentially culpable media outlets. An analysis conducted by The Columbia Journalism Review argued that fake news played a less significant role in the election than has been suggested, while the impact of the mainstream media has been underreported on.

The authors argue that mainstream media outlets made critical mistakes while reporting on the election by focusing “much more on ‘dramatic’ issues…[such as] personal scandals, than on substantive policy issues.” The articles notes that in the span of six days leading up to the election, the New York Times ran 10 stories about Clinton’s emails, the same number of stories they published about Trump and Clinton’s proposed policies combined in the 69 days leading up to the election. The article claims that this “[affected] Clinton’s approval rating among undecided voters [and] could very well have tipped the election.”

The media also focused, and continues to focus, much of its attention on Trump’s personality. A New York Times article published March of 2016, in the midst of the primaries, reported that Trump had spent only $10 million on presidential advertising, which paled in comparison to the $82 million spent by Jeb Bush and the approximately $28 million spent by both Bernie Sanders and Clinton. However, what Trump did not expend on advertising, he made up for in free media, as various news outlets took to reporting and providing commentary on his campaign. In March, Trump had received $2 billion worth of free media, a value quantified by computing a dollar value based on advertisement rates. This figure is more than double than what every other candidate in the primaries received.

The disproportionate amount of media attention Trump received is tied to a shifting media landscape. The rise of the Internet has moved much of news consumption from print to digital. Newspapers, which had previously depended on revenue from advertisers, contended with shrinking budgets because digital advertising cannot produce the same revenue as print. News outlets have scrambled to find new revenue sources, and increasingly, this has meant targeting their readers. Many have focused on gaining subscribers by creating attention-grabbing content. Tully-McManus acknowledged the impact this shifting media model has had on Roll Call and other outlets. “I think it has definitely shaped how we produce some things… I’m sure that in other newsrooms, there’s a huge push on clicks and metrics. That definitely is a factor in our newsroom, but I would not say that it drives coverage,” she said.

Oren pointed out that a similar issue is plaguing television media. “With the proliferation of cable, there’s a lot more competition for the same amount of eyeballs. So news has to become entertainment. And when news becomes entertainment and when what you report on and how you report on it is about ratings, news becomes something else,” she explained.

Berry and Oren both linked the emphasis on audiences and ratings to the over-coverage of Trump. “He creates storylines that are like catnip. It was once [reported] that during the campaign, if his press coverage slipped, he would respond by creating a new story that pushed him back up. He was very conscious of the degree to which he was being paid attention to,” Berry said. Oren concurred. “He’s a television star,” she said. “He did stuff that was entertaining and said outrageous things. He’s very good at manipulating media; he’s been doing it for years.”

Anthony Rudel, a visiting professor at Tufts who teaches the course Media & Moral Responsibility, criticized the media’s coverage of Trump. “The reason the media [over-reports on Trump] is that it gets great ratings. But they need to step back and say, ‘We’re not covering news here,’” he said. “I argue that if we stopped covering him, he wouldn’t know how to deal with it. He only knows how to deal with media coverage. I would go to media un-coverage and see what happens.”

Rudel’s idea complements that of Jay Rosen, a media critic and professor of journalism at New York University. In a blog post, Rosen wrote that because the president’s statements are intentionally misleading and provably false, journalists should suspend normal relations with Trump. Rosen went so far as to suggest that CNN should never report live from a Trump event, because doing so inevitably leads to the broadcast of lies.

Oren, however, feels that this breakage of normal media relations could have harmful effects. “Journalists reporting on the White House is how our country should be run. If we are in a moment of craziness that we all are hoping to get out of, what journalists should not do is cede their place in what a normal democracy looks like.” Instead, she suggested, “Journalists should report on what is said, but also what happens. I think we are spending a lot more time talking about what is said.”

The question of how precisely to go about this is complicated. Nan Levinson, a journalist and English professor at Tufts, suggested, “The press could dial back, I think that’s not at any great loss to democracy. [Journalists should] not respond to every tweet as if its news, because it isn’t.” Levinson also emphasized the importance of supplementing fact checking with context. “I think you do correct lies, you simply say, ‘this is not true.’ [But] context is also really important.”

Tully-McManus explained that the reporting Roll Call does on Trump is framed to give such context. “In our newsroom, our White House reporter does report on Trump’s statements, but it’s never a stand-alone story, like Trump said X. [They take] the time to write a longer piece that does include qualifications and fact checks, and [goes] back into Trump’s own history,” she explained.

Levinson believes that reporting effectively and ethically on the Trump administration hinges on finding a balance. “It’s not if you report on it, but how you report on it… Simply giving it a microphone, being a mouthpiece for it, is not a good idea. So you have to find some place in between. It’s important that you report on the underlying issues, not just on the fight,” she said.

Tully-McManus added that the reevaluation of journalistic practices is ongoing. “Newsrooms are taking different approaches, and we’re still in the middle of it. We’re still waiting to see what the results of the different approaches are.”