Watchdog Journalism: Putting a Leash on Fake News

Crazy black dog jumping in the air.
"The battle for men's minds is as old as human history." - American Historical Association


Watchdog Journalism: Putting a leash on fake news

What’s the Matter, Boy?

In an age where news circulates 24 hours a day, the ability for consumers to distinguish real news from fake news is becoming increasingly difficult. The fake news epidemic has been making headlines at a staggering rate. Last year alone, the relationship between the American public and mainstream media has been criticized more than ever before.

A 2016 Gallup survey showed 32 percent of Americans trust the media “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” Compared to 54 percent of Americans who said they had confidence in the media in 2003, public-media trust has only dissipated in years since.

“At the center of every falsified narrative is a complex web of fact, fiction, and imagination,” says SJMC Professor Frank Durham. “It plays on the prior knowledge of an issue or event, but is rearranged in a calculated and untrue fashion.”

When it comes to the appearance and mannerisms of fake news, there can be virtually no difference between factual and fraudulent material, making it that much more challenging for consumers to differentiate between the two.

According to a late 2016 Ipsos survey conducted for BuzzFeed, 75 percent of American adults who “were familiar with a fake news headline viewed the story as accurate.”

In short, most Americans who see fake news tend to believe it to be true, which is exactly why the war on fake news is a problem worth discussing.

Old Dogs

For decades, the American public has blindly trusted in the accountability of mainstream media to truthfully distribute information. However, concern over the public’s ability to recognize unauthentic material is now under debate.

“For a long time, if it was news, it was produced by ‘select’ journalists who controlled the circulation of information into public space,” says SJMC Director David Ryfe. “They did this in conjunction with officials and experts who negotiated what kinds of facts were relevant and relatively accurate, and out of those negotiations came the news.”

The journalism industry started with just a few platforms—print, radio, television—controlling the flow of information to the public. Now, the number of news sources is at an all-time high, with a variety of outlets ranging in perspectives from the Huffington Post to FOX News and many others. Last year, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey confirming the majority of Americans (88 percent) say fake news has left them confused about the basic facts on any given topic due to fake news encounters on the same subject.

In 1925, Walter Lippmann, an American writer and reporter, wrote in The Phantom Public that “the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row, who ought to keep his mind on the mystery off there, but cannot quite manage to keep awake.” 

Ninety-two years after Lippmann’s comment, American citizens are continuing to nod off. Rather than seeking out and critically thinking about the issues taking place around them, masses of consumers are settling for news handed to them like a dog waiting for a bone. The American public has gotten lazy in terms of media literacy—gradually shying away from challenging the content they consume.

In his article, “The Long and Brutal History of Fake News,” Jacob Soll, a contributor for Politico Magazine, says fake news had tended to be sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices from the very beginning.

“Fake news took off around the same time as Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439,” Soll says. “In an early era of public news consumption, it was nearly impossible to verify information released to the public as it was a time with little to no concepts of journalistic ethics or objectivity.”

"It is in journalists' best interest to figure out a way to create an institution that people can see is trustworthy again."
- SJMC Director David Ryfe

New Tricks

Fake news has been used in a number of different ways for a number of different reasons—entertainment, propaganda, profit—and over half a millennium later, those same motives have kept fake news alive and well.

Despite its recent popularity, fake news is not a new tactic; it has become more sophisticated in its ability to imitate real news. 

The fake news movement has been very successful in fooling the masses into falling victim to this genre of literature. Some of this success is due to technological advancements and rise of the social media revolution, which has made news no longer limited by space and time.

As a result of the overwhelming display of fake news, America has started to suffer real-world consequences. Examples include a man with an assault rifle in a Washington, D.C. pizzeria who was sparked by a rumor that presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was allegedly running a child-trafficking ring from within, and the mass hysteria over the Ebola virus from claims that an entire Texas town was quarantined after a family of five tested positive for the disease. This creates cause for concern as one might assume more instances like these will occur due to the persuasive gain of fake news.

Beware the Mill

In a society where fake news is circulating at a faster rate than real news, the general public is at the mercy of mainstream media. Although some media outlets take pride in their reputation, the lure of producing attention-grabbing stories proves to be too tempting for others to resist. 

Fake headlines can range from satirical, “Trump Offering Free One-way Tickets to Africa or Mexico for Those who Want to Leave America” to worrisome, “FBI Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide.”

The pool of fake news is not limited to bizarre headlines and unreasonable statements. Dave Trabert, president of the Kansad Policy Institute says, “Media also fakes the news by declining to report facts that refute the narrative touted by special interests or their own editorial positions.”

Despite the wide range of fake news topics, one thing remains clear: Fake news tends to follow real news. In the event of breaking news, dozens of versions of the same story are released simultaneously, contributing to inadequacies in consumers’ news literacy.

Craig Silverman, media editor for BuzzFeed News, highlights the possible motivation behind fraudulent news stories in the aftermath of genuine news: “Owners of these unprofessional sites try to capitalize on real news events with fake stories.”

Experts at agree with Silverman’s theory, stating that fabricated stories posing as serious journalism are not likely to go away as they have become a means for some writers to make money and influence public opinion.

Muddy Paws

The intricate web of flowing information leaves readers the responsibility to not only separate fact from fiction, but also to navigate between satirical work, blatant false narratives with purpose, and accidental misinformation. 

A thin line is drawn between fake news and satirical news. Popular satirical sites like The Onion and  The Borowitz Report have become just as persuasive as mainstream news organizations. Although both sites publicize their satirical nature, frequent sharing and brief skimming has caused confusion among news consumers.

Fake news has been used as a tool in many cases to sway or heavily influence an audience’s thoughts and behaviors. Known as propaganda, this type of fake news has the potential to help or hurt a person, movement, institution, or nation.

When it comes to breaking news, journalists and media organizations compete to get information out fast. This can lead to misinformation and unchecked material being published as truth, creating yet another form of fake news that readers must become aware of when absorbing information.

Creators of fake news have become sophisticated enough to capture the full attention of readers in the same way as credible and trustworthy outlets. Any information—real or fake—has the potential to appear authentic, making it evident that sometimes it is necessary for readers to judge a book by its cover.

House Training

Though believing everything one may see, read, or hear, is an easy trap to fall into, it is important that the consumer avoid taking any and all information at face value. To be a well-informed citizen, readers must make the effort to have a well-rounded view on whatever issue is at hand and take the time to check the facts—including ones that disagree with their own beliefs or biases.

Ben Kieffer (BA ’86), a producer and talk show host at Iowa Public Radio, believes deciphering fake news is an opportunity to put critical thinking skills to the test. “If you come across something that you don’t agree with, that’s a good thing. Everybody should be presented with challenges to their views on this or that issue.” 

Although it takes effort to become a media literate consumer, the benefit of becoming a well-informed citizen far outweighs the obstacles one may face. All it takes to become media literate is awareness, education, and guidance.

UI K9 Unit

Higher education institutions are also doing their part in combating the fake news epidemic. The University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication prides itself in preparing students with the necessary skills to steer clear of imitation journalism.

Established in 1924, the University of Iowa SJMC has long been a national leader in journalism education, awarding the nation’s first doctorate degrees in the field. The SJMC continues this has a proud history of innovation and adaptation by keeping up with the ever-evolving world of communication.

SJMC Director David Ryfe has been working closely with the school to ensure its core curriculum includes the latest provisions in combating fake news disputes and building skills to help students distinguish themselves from the average blogger. The SJMC has always maintained a high standard of media literacy for its journalism students.

“We help students think of journalism as a social institution and not just a set of practices that we will drill them with until they get really good at writing stories,” says Ryfe. “We get students thinking about the role of journalism within society and how journalism, as an institution, is going to distinguish itself in this more fragmented public space.”

For nearly a century, the SJMC has evolved to remain up-to-date in its fundamental principles. “We train our students with core curriculum courses such as Media Uses and Effects, Media History, and Media Law,” says Ryfe, “All of which help students to think about journalism through a wider lens.”

In order to best prepare students for a future in journalism, SJMC faculty members are committed to keeping the curriculum innovative, relevant, and responsive. 

 “It is in journalists’ best interest to figure out a way to create an institution that people can see is trustworthy again,” Ryfe says. “That’s the goal. And that’s how we think about it with our students.”

Who Wants a Treat?

Good journalism is a fundamental component of a successful democracy, paving the way for free and open public discussion.

Looking at the future of news, both consumers and journalists can only hope that a tight leash will soon wrangle in a majority of bogus news-scattering media organizations in order to reestablish what journalism’s role in society should be.

Feeling the pressure, some major corporations are taking measures to limit their role in the spread of fake news. The Wall Street Journal stated, “Facebook’s ‘trending topics’ box will now only feature stories that have been covered by a significant number of credible news outlets, a move meant to stop the spread of hoaxes.”

According to an article in The New York Times, that Google has also taken precautions to avoid spreading fake news by “banning nearly 200 publishers associated with its AdSense advertising network, one of the largest online advertising networks with over two million publishers.” 

Melissa Zimdars (PhD ’15) made national news as a result of her controversial “fake news list” created to help news consumers weed out fact from fiction. Read more about it.

As the war on fake news rages on, professional journalists and media personnel are working hard to win the battle.  To remain a well-informed democracy, news consumers and mainstream media alike, must recognize the impact that fake news has on society. Unless we get a handle on the fake news craze, watchdog journalism will continue to have a bite as big as its bark.