A year after the fake news phenomenon dominated the 2016 election, journalists worldwide are adjusting news-gathering practices to deal with a dangerous and uncertain world.
Gavin Woltjer, director of the Parmly Billings Library, was the moderator Tuesday for a panel discussion called “Fake News Part II, One Year Later.” He introduced what he called an “all-star” panel of Jon Stepanek, news director at KTVQ; Tim Lehman, a history professor at Rocky Mountain College; and Darrell Ehrlick, editor of the Billings Gazette.
Lehman opened his remarks by defining fake news as news reports that are deliberately, intentionally and verifiably false. Panelists agreed that the meaning of the term has evolved to include any news with which the reader disagrees, whether accurate or not.
Stepanek said that heightened outrage at the media has caused safety concerns at his TV station. When President Trump accused the news media of being “enemies of the people,” Stepanek said, “That really hit home. It hurt to have our president say that.”
He noted that KTVQ mentioned on its Facebook page an account of a 19-year-old Michigan man who was jailed after threatening to kill CNN employees. A commenter on KTVQ’s Facebook page called on citizens to help the man make bail and buy more ammunition.
“We’ve got to be on the lookout for people who take this fake news idea and use it to harm other people,” he said.
Ehrlick said he sometimes has to try to defuse confrontations with angry readers, a problem he blamed in part on the dehumanizing effect of fake news.
“It erodes our humanity with each other,” he said.
Ehrlick also said the fake news phenomenon has diverted resources from routine news coverage to double and triple checking stories that may or may not be fake.
“Sometimes these crazy stories turn out to be true,” he said.
All three panelists agreed that the problem of fake news has gotten worse in the last year. Lehman said decline of trust in journalists has gone along with a decline in trust in other sources of authority, including college professors. New technologies have greatly expanded the number of news sources without any gate keepers to monitor accuracy, he said.
Ehrlick cited a new Gallup/Knight Foundation poll finding that 42 percent of Republicans and 17 percent of Democrats brand as fake news even accurate stories that cast a negative light on politicians or political groups they favor.
Stepanek pointed out that journalists around the world have been imprisoned or killed, sometimes following government claims of fake news.
Stepanek said that journalists must continue to talk in public about the importance of the First Amendment.
“If we lose that, we lose everything,” he said. He also said, “We have to be vigilant in doing our job better than we ever have before.”
Lehman said fake news stories often aim to provoke moral outrage. He said readers who begin to feel moral outrage should calm down, set the news story aside and consider whether it’s true.
Stepanek said that fake news sites, which often can be deceptively well designed and credible in appearance, tend to focus on news about politics and celebrities. He himself bit on a story saying that Adam Sandler was moving to Billings, an admission that drew chuckles and then laughs when Woltjer followed up with a question about what audiences, other than Stepanek, are susceptible to fake news.
“The audience that believed this is an all-star panel would be a pretty good place to start,” Lehman joked.
Ehrlick pointed to some encouraging signs. Only about one in four Americans have actually consumed fake news, he said, and about half of those who did also went to a fact-checking website. It’s the 13.3 percent who consume fake news and then nothing else who are a concern.
Lehman urged the hundred or so people who attended the discussion to “read, watch and pay for real news.” Look for news in multiple sources and look for sources that correct their errors, he said.
In response to a question, Lehman said one might see “echoes” of Nazi Germany in today’s political environment, but he added that American press and civil institutions are far stronger today than they were in Germany at that time. He compared today’s political atmosphere with that in America in World War I, when hyper-patriotism threatened freedom of speech. But those controversies eventually resulted in court decisions that ultimately strengthened the First Amendment, he said.
“If we can restore our civil society,” he said, “fake news will disappear.”
Stepanek and Ehrlick both cited reporting in the Washington Post and New York Times about the Trump administration as evidence that the American press is vigorous. Ehrlick pointed out that David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting on Trump’s charitable donations. He said that Fahrenthold did much of his work by crossing off names of potential sources on a legal pad, the same technology that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein used in their groundbreaking Watergate reporting.
New technology may look fancy, he said, but a lot of reporting is pretty old-fashioned.
Stepanek and Ehrlick agreed that their jobs are far different today than they were a few years ago. Ehrlick said that the Gazette has been publishing for longer than Montana has been a state, and there’s a tendency to assume that what always has been there always will be there. But the paper faces challenges in revenue, readership and corporate ownership.
“We need to figure out how to enshrine journalism without state-run media,” he said.
The discussion was part of the library’s Civil Conversations series. The next panel, on the politics of the Middle East, will be held March 20.