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‘VD is everywhere:’ Instead of ‘fake news,’ call it ‘viral deception,’ journalist says

Editor-in-Chief at ProPublica discusses the issue of ‘fake news’

Stephen Engelberg, Editor-in-Chief at ProPublica, discussed the issue of “fake news” and media distrust on Tuesday Feb. 26, 2019 during a Roger Tatarian Symposium held at Fresno State’s Satellite Student Union.
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Stephen Engelberg, Editor-in-Chief at ProPublica, discussed the issue of “fake news” and media distrust on Tuesday Feb. 26, 2019 during a Roger Tatarian Symposium held at Fresno State’s Satellite Student Union.

The editor in chief of ProPublica says the term “fake news” has lost all meaning and Donald Trump’s reason for using it has become clear.

“I think what he really means is that ‘fake news’ in general is journalism that does not endorse his view of reality,” Stephen Engelberg said. “Thus NBC, when it writes a story that the White House doesn’t like, it’s ‘fake news NBC.’”

So Engelberg on Tuesday night presented an audience with a new term during a Roger Tatarian Symposium on “fake news” and media distrust held at Fresno State’s Satellite Student Union.

“If I had the power, I would retire the term entirely,” Engelberg said. “It’s lost its meaning and I don’t think we agree on what it means anymore.”

Instead, Engelberg said Americans should call “fake news” by a different name – “viral deception” or “VD.”

The change for the night drew some laughs: “VD is everywhere.”

His use of “viral deception” during his keynote speech was borrowed from Annenberg Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

Once on CNN, Jamieson said: “We don’t want to get venereal disease, if you find someone who’s got it, you want to quarantine and cure him. You don’t want to transmit it.”

During his speech, Engelberg said traditional media does not promote false news stories like some are led to believe, and it’s the news media’s responsibility to tell their audiences how and why they do their work.

Engelberg’s speech – along with a discussion led by Roger Tatarian Chair Tim Drachlis with journalists from the Washington Post, Associated Press and Los Angeles Times – sought to inform the audience how newsrooms operate.

It also opened up a conversation how newsrooms can regain the public’s trust amid the constant accusations of false reporting.

Citing a 2018 Gallup Poll on public trust, Drachlis said 45 percent of Americans trust the news media.

He contrasted the recent poll to the same one taken in 1976, when 72 percent of people trusted the news media.

The mistrust and ways to correct it was at the top of the discussion among The Post’s Scott Wilson, AP’s Juliet Williams and LA Times’ Sewell Chan.

They presented several solutions, including being more transparent in how reporters produce stories and in how news organizations operate the news and opinion side of their newsrooms.

The Fresno Bee’s recent partnership with Arizona State University’s News CoLab organization to become more transparent in reporting was highlighted during the night as an example of how news organizations can be more open to audiences about their work.

In spite of the transparency examples highlighted throughout the night, one citizen who attended the discussion rose to ask the panel a question about why the media doesn’t cover certain stories.

He said the media has been “plagiarizing” the American people and cited Drudge Report and InfoWars as more credible sources of information than the organizations represented on stage.

“You’re never going to get our trust back,” the unidentified man said.

Earlier, Chan said mistrust of the media predates the president’s attacks and the political climate seen under his administration, and that the media isn’t the only institution facing mistrust.

Trust and mistrust “relate to things like rising inequality and they relate to things like urban and rural divide,” Chan said.

He suggested during the discussion that newsrooms should diversify their staffs in order to better reflect and connect their communities through reporting. He said the LA Times recently has been pushing to hire people from different backgrounds.

“We are looking for a balance of people who went to state schools, community colleges as well as private schools,” Chan said. “We are looking for people with class diversity, people who have done manual labor for a living.”

Chan, along with Williams and Wilson, also discussed what stories newsrooms should focus on and whether that has any impact on how readers respond to the news. They pondered whether reporters should focus as heavily on what politicians say as they focus on what they do.

“It’s a hard one, because you can’t ignore the statements of the president, in some respects, no matter how outrageous they are,” Williams said.

Added Chan: “The utterance of outrageous things by people in power is not always in itself news.”

Wilson then jumped in and said, “I’m not in the business of not telling people things.”

He added that reporting on things such as remarks by elected officials is important, but readers need to examine the reporting and come to their own conclusions.

The journalists agreed that news reporting helps to provide context and a better understanding of American society. The discussion mostly focused around broad and national coverage but then circled to focus on the value of local news reporting.

They each encouraged the audience to support local newsrooms that are at the forefront of covering their city councils and school boards in spite of the challenges.

“Do the stories that you can do,” Williams told two reporters from the Sun-Gazette newspaper in Exeter, “and do them well.”

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado is a general assignment reporter at The Fresno Bee. He grew up in Porterville and has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Fresno State. He is a former student editor at the Fresno State and Fresno City College newspapers. His hobbies include reading, sleeping, running and taking care of his dog.
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