Here's what you can do about fake news before the 2020 election

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

By Michael Bugeja, Des Moines Register

In 2019, Iowans will hear the phrase “fake news” whenever a report sullies a political party or presidential hopeful. We may support or scorn candidates without knowing fact from factoid.

This column explains what you can do about it.

People typically do not differentiate between journalism and media. Journalists report and edit news. Media mostly disseminate news (i.e. tweets, posts, blogs, websites, android apps, etc.). Journalists adhere to ethical standards. Social media does not.

Many voters no longer believe what they read, view or hear. We have a choice: Embrace lies and half-truths or subscribe (actually pay something) to access fact-based reports.

In 2005, I noted how journalism was metamorphosing into fake news: “Downsizing reporting staffs is dangerous in a republic founded on the principle that truth, not profit, should rise to the top.” I added that disseminating opinion is cheaper than gathering fact because the former can be aligned to a target market. 

Something else has arisen, prompting me to write in advance of 2020 political visits to Iowa.

Two psychologists, Gordon Pennycook and David Rand, just published an opinion piece titled “Why Do People Fall for Fake News?” They claim this happens for two reasons. One group’s ability to reason is “hijacked” by partisan convictions. The other group is “mentally lazy.”

A recent study published in Science Advances noted that those aged 65 and older were more responsible than any other age group in disseminating false news on Facebook during the 2016 election. This was true regardless of ideology, education level or political affiliation.

I offer a third possibility about why this happens.

Media have de-evolved into an indistinguishable entity in the digital cloud. All it takes is one virally distributed inaccurate report to taint the cloud so that it rains falsehood on everyone doing journalism.

There is a flood of fake news on Facebook. This month, the BBC reported that Facebook has removed 500 pages and accounts of Russian fabricators targeting Central and Eastern Europe.

Get ready for the Russian assault on Iowa in advance of the Feb. 3, 2020 caucuses.

Fake news is a distinctly American creation perpetuated by the likes of Benjamin Franklin. In 1782, he fabricated a supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle recounting wartime atrocities and gave that to British editors hoping they would reprint it and help secure reparations for U.S. citizens.

That model — dubious content disseminated by others — remains the primary facet of fake news. 

A prime example is the recent BuzzFeed report that alleged special counsel Robert Mueller possessed evidence that President Trump instructed former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. 

When other outlets went with the report without sufficient fact-checking, a spokesperson for Mueller issued a statement calling the BuzzFeed article inaccurate.

By now the damage had been done. 

As media columnist Jim Rutenberg writes, each mistake of this magnitude feeds the notion that all of journalism is “fake news” because of the “insatiable appetite” of social media and cable for fresh material.

Organizations like CNN and Fox News not only tell us the news — often relying on newspapers that still do it; they hire pundits to shape our opinions.

The average salary of broadcast news commentators was $56,680 in 2016, with the highest 10 percent paid $163,490. The average salary for reporters is $43,960. In Iowa, salaries range from $19,340-$50,720 and higher, with the average yearly pay of $36,870.

In an ideal world, untold millions spent on pundits would go to reporters who actually do news.

Fake news has a devastating effect on journalism and democracy.

Reporters have a calling. They hold government accountable so that we can make intelligent decisions in the voting booth. Journalists typically sacrifice time with loved ones, working ungodly hours — often involving travel — and live frugally for decades. 

The general public doesn’t witness the deep psychic pain of a reporter who gets a pink slip because people expect news for free.

The Pew Research Center reports that newsrooms continue to cut positions because of “dwindling print subscriptions.” In a Jan. 28 article titled "Does Journalism Have  Future?", staff writer Jill Lepore states, “Good reporting is expensive, but people do not want to pay for it.”

Pay while you can.

Forbes published a list of trustworthy news organizations based on ethics and policies about corrections. They include The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, among others.

Don’t overlook local newspapers, the lifeblood of communities.

Yes, subscribe. Go further. Buy gift subscriptions for relatives and friends. Discuss the news face to face at the dinner table instead of on Facebook. If you have children, let them see you pore over the newsprint, pointing out stories about their school, hobby or upcoming events you might attend, including visits by presidential hopefuls.

It takes a village to save the village newspaper. A free press is worth the price of subscription.

This column was written by Michael Bugeja and originally published in the Des Moines Register on January 23, 2019. Michael Bugeja is author of Living Media Ethics (Routledge, 2019) and Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press, 2018).

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