How to defeat fake news? By media transparency and being more demanding consumers

A group of leading journalists from some of America’s top news outlets led a discussion at Fresno State this week on how to put fake news in its proper place — the rear-view mirror of history.

The experts’ key takeaways: Journalists need to be much more transparent about their work — especially the how and why they do what they do. But there is also responsibility on the individual news consumer to become more sophisticated in assessing what passes for news.

Under the sponsorship of the Media, Communications and Journalism Department at Fresno State, the Tuesday evening event featured Stephen Engelberg, the editor-in-chief of ProPublica, a leading online investigative journalism website; Sewell Chan, a deputy managing editor at the Los Angeles Times; Juliet Williams, Northern California news editor for The Associated Press; and Scott Wilson, senior national correspondent for The Washington Post.

They agreed that Americans’ trust in the media is low. Only Congress ranks lower on the trust scale than newspapers and television news, according to a Gallup survey done last year.

Washington Post reporter Scott Wilson, Associated Press news editor Juliet Williams and Los Angeles Times deputy managing editor Sewell Chan are joined by Fresno State Roger Tatarian Chair Tim Drachlis (far right) on stage at Fresno State’s Satellite Student Union Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019, during a symposium on public trust in the press. CRESENCIO RODRIGUEZ-DELGADO

“Fake news” has been popularized by President Trump, but he is not the first president to grouse about press coverage, Engelberg noted. Engelberg suggests that phrase should be retired in favor of another: viral deception, since so much of the problem lies with information that get presented and shared online. (Engelberg purposely but jokingly called it “VD.”)

Toward the goal of clearing things up, Engelberg said the press should more fully explain the efforts it undertakes to report and write a story. And it should be more willing to admit mistakes. Engelberg said he once wrote a 960-word correction to explain how ProPublica mistakenly linked CIA Director Gina Haspel to a terrorism suspect’s waterboarding.

The news consumer should also follow some basic tenets to understand if a story is true or fake, Engelberg noted:

The first question should always be, what is the source? Engelberg said stories that have supporting elements, such as videos, audio and official documents, like court records, are more credible.

Second, is any other news outlet also reporting the story? In the print era, a consumer had to buy several papers to compare coverage. The digital era makes it easier to check a variety of sources online.

A third key was noted by Williams: Keep in mind that, when checking stories suggested in a social media feed, such news has been filtered by the platform, like Facebook, for what it thinks the consumer wants.

Engelberg said there is no question reporters have built-in biases. But professional reporters working for reputable outlets agree to leave their assumptions at the doorway into the newsroom before they begin the workday. They let the facts dictate the story.

Likewise, “it is essential for us as readers to get out of our bubbles and see all perspectives” on an issue, he said.

For more than a year, The Bee has been working with journalism experts at Arizona State University on becoming more transparent. On its major stories, The Bee now adds an explanation box outlining who was interviewed and what other research was done. The Bee also has each reporter list biographical information about him or herself at the bottom of each story, so readers can learn more about who the reporter is on that assignment. Phones, emails and Twitter handles are listed for easy contact.

Chan noted that distrust of the media is part of a broader lack of faith in our society. Many Americans distrust institutions in general, he noted — from religions to the military to universities.

When it comes to journalism, the burden for fixing the trust gap is on the media, Wilson said. Transparency is the start. As the adage goes, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”