Can we solve America's fake news problem? A media expert's advice

December 28, 2016
Only 32 percent of Americans trust the media.

This month alone saw several headline-making news stories that weren't true – the Pizzagate scandal that alleged Hillary Clinton was the mastermind of a child sex-trafficking ring (she wasn't); a tweet that alleged pop star Britney Spears was dead (she wasn't); and a post that claimed the Minnesota Vikings were opening their stadium to the homeless (they weren't).

It’s no surprise that a Gallup poll from earlier this year claimed a whopping 68 percent of Americans don’t trust the media and that confidence in the news has declined across all age groups. In an era of anonymous Reddit posts and personal blogs, how can the media regain trust from consumers? And how can consumers separate real news from fake news?

“When news becomes less relevant to people’s daily lives, trust declines,” Jeanne Bouorgault, CEO and President of nonprofit group Internews explained to us Wednesday. “In this country, we believe the decline in trust is directly related to a decline in local news organizations, both print and broadcast. This decline also impacts citizen engagement in the local and national political process.”

Local newspapers are inarguably a dying breed – there’s even a web site dedicated to the demise of print periodicals across the nation. Local broadcast news viewership is also dwindling, with network affiliates reporting a five percent drop in views during morning, evening and late night newscasts in 2015.

“The media needs to slow down and listen to people, reporters need to get up from their desks and get back out into the communities they are covering,” Bourgault advised. “In particular, media needs to make an effort to listen to groups within their community and the country that are traditionally excluded from the conversation.”

Internews is a 34-year-old organization that “aims to empower local media worldwide.” It has worked in more than 90 countries and has offices in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and North America.

Bourgault has seen how trustworthy local media can positively influence communities.

“When we arrived in Afghanistan 15 years ago, the only media was a single, Taliban-controlled radio station,” she explained. “We and a number of other partners worked to build radio and TV stations and today, every corner of the country is reached by local media, reporting on local issues. This year, the Asia Foundation reported that 67% of Afghans trust media.”

On Monday, the fake news bandit struck again when a tweet from Sony Music alleged pop superstar Britney Spears was dead. The tweets were quickly removed, and the corporation claimed its Twitter account was hacked and issued an apology. Sony’s swift response didn’t stop the fake news from spreading, and #RIPBritney became a trending hashtag.

This brings up another issue. In an era when only 32 percent of Americans trust the media, why do some people believe everything they read or hear?

“Another key is ensuring that people have the critical thinking skills to understand the media they are consuming. Where does it come from? Who owns this station? Is this an opinion piece or a news report? These basic skills, which fall generally under the rubric of media and information literacy, are woefully lacking in the US,” Bourgault said.

In the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Internews created the Listening Post -- a media site that aimed to publish stories directly from the city’s local communities, especially areas that were missing from the public conversation post-disaster. The Listening Post still operates today. Contributors use mobile phones, public signs and recording devices to spread information in the Big Easy. Local stories from the page are used in weekly broadcasts on a local NPR station.

Bourgault is encouraged by The Listening Post’s success. She hopes Internews’ global reach will continue build a stronger relationship between media and the masses.

“We live in a time of such great promise for empowerment of people everywhere through newly democratized media and information,” she said. “We are also now waking up to the shadow side of that promise. The answer lies in our commitment to building the future we want where everyone, everywhere is empowered with the trusted information they need to live healthy and engaged lives.”

(Internews President & CEO Jeanne Bourgault was interviewed for this article on fake news from KCCI Des Moines.)