Media Panels Weigh in on Fake News, Facebook, Democracy

(CN) — In response to a Gallup poll of Americans’ opinions about the news media, four panels hosted by The Washington Post explored the role of the press in the era of “fake news” and social media.

“Americans and the Media: Sorting Fact from Fake News” featured panel discussions about how the media should respond in a rapidly changing political and technological climate.

The event was partly a response to a recent poll conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation that surveyed American attitudes toward the news media.

One finding from the poll, which was emphasized by several panelists, was that more than 80 percent of Americans surveyed believe that the news media are important to democracy.

Around two-thirds of the 19,000 adults polled said the news media does not separate fact from opinion effectively, a view that only 42 percent believed in 1984.

Nearly three-quarters of those polled said inaccurate information on the internet is a problem for news coverage.

Jennifer Preston from the Knight Foundation stressed the need for better local media coverage in cities nationwide, saying strong local reporting has helped bring light to “fragile and vulnerable populations.”

“What we need to do to battle misinformation is to improve the flow of accurate information and strong reporting, because it is there, and we must support it,” Preston told moderator Margaret Sullivan from The Washington Post.

In a panel moderated by Post correspondent Dan Balz, Judy Woodruff from PBS Newshour and Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier discussed the challenges of covering the Trump administration.

Baier described the process of deciding which aspects of the administration to cover as “drinking from a fire hose.”

“We used to have one giant story of the day,” Baier said, contrasting the coverage of Trump with previous administrations. “Now we have six.”

The challenging part of covering Trump is “painting a picture” and not simply “getting mired in the tweet of the moment,” Baier said.

Woodruff said Trump is a “news-making machine.”

“We’re used to covering presidents who make news from time to time,” she said. “President Trump makes news all day long.”

In the next panel discussion, Indira Lakshmanan noted that Trump “capitalized on the existing distrust of the media.”

“It’s incredibly dangerous to dismiss the entire news media ecosystem,” Lakshmanan told moderator Libby Casey.

She said autocratic leaders such as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are using Trump’s “fake news” concept to justify anti-democratic policies.

The panelists also discussed the role of social media, Facebook in particular, in how Americans view the media and news in general.

Moderator Sarah Ellison asked each of the three panelists if Facebook was a “media company or tech company.”

“Both,” said Nuala O’Connor of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

“It’s a tech company that doesn’t want to admit it’s a media company,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University. Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed concurred, saying they were “technology and media rolled into one.”

“And the most dominant platform for speech in the world, in some ways,” he added.

Rosen said that Facebook has a “majestic indifference to the fortunes of the news industry.” A very small percentage of the content on Facebook is actual news, he said.

Facebook announced this month that it will show fewer news articles and advertising and will emphasize connecting friends and family members.

Recent studies of media literacy paint an alarming picture of young people’s ability to discern news from fake news and other newslike items online.

A Stanford study in 2016 found that middle school, high school and college students had “a stunning and dismaying consistency” in their inability to discern fake articles, items from activist groups, and advertisements written as news articles.

The researchers showed subjects a post from Fox News announcing that Trump was running for president, and one from an account that looked like Fox News. More than 30 percent of the respondents thought the fake account was more trustworthy.

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