Fake News and its Effects Beyond Journalism

Panel speaking

We hear the term "fake news" so often about every topic imaginable: politics, celebrity death hoaxes and which shows are leaving Netflix (don't worry — The Office is safe, for now). The term has become so vague that it's become difficult to gauge its impact on news media and its consumers, and brings a unique set of worries to students studying journalism.

To bring some clarity around fake news, the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences brought in local journalists to participate in a panel on the topic:

  • Television journalist Ted Nesi, from WPRI
  • Talk show host Tara Granahan, from News Talk WPRO
  • Radio show host Pablo Rodriguez of Latino Public Radio

The panelists visited Providence as part of the Media & Politics Café series, a joint initiative to engage students across the Political Science, Media & Communication, Psychology and Sociology programs.

Students representing all majors filled the Bowen Center for the standing-room only event. Criminal Justice majors made up the better part of the student population — outnumbering Media & Communication Studies majors by quite a few. Political Science and Business Studies majors were also represented, along with a smattering of Culinary Arts and Marketing majors. The wide range of disciplines represented underscores not only the wide-reaching impact of fake news, but the interdisciplinary connections that the university works to build every day.

As moderator Wendy Wagner, professor of Media and Communication, presented a series of questions for the panel to discuss, a theme quickly emerged: fake news not only exists in many different forms, but can often go viral in a harmful way. The best way to combat it, all three journalists say, is to rely on ourselves as consumers.

“We all need to be better media consumers,” Nesi says. He explains that there is a difference between a mistake and a blatant disregard for the truth. When asked by a student why corrections are often too minor to counteract the initial shock value, Nesi responds thoughtfully. “Emphasis is a valid critique,” he says. “There’s a correction in little type on page two vs. the big, splashy headline that got everyone talking.”

Rodriguez agrees that much of the responsibility to vet sources is on the consumer. “So much is not about lies, it’s about lacking context,” he says. He urges everyone to read and watch more than one news source. “We are all biased,” he says. “The search for the truth has to have a suspension of your bias.”

"So much is not about lies, it’s about lacking context."

As the panel dove into their personal experiences with media, students also asked various questions of the group, which included hot-topic issues such as doctored videos, the role of social media in spreading fake news and how they as journalists work to combat the spread and verify sources. Wagner also asked the panel if fake news is inherently political in nature. The panel thought for a moment before Rodriguez spoke up.

“The reason fake news is effective is because it's reinforcing an opinion,” Rodriguez says. “That’s what has made it grow, and if the audience is not doing the job of re-vetting the information, and just trusting blindly, then it's going to have a political effect. So it's still the responsibility of the audience, at the end of the day, to really discern what's right and what's wrong,” he adds. “And unfortunately, we follow what justifies our already established opinion.”

But what about the media’s responsibility? Granahan uses an example of the White House Press corps and their tendency to put themselves in the story. “If you're there to just get the facts, give me the facts,” she says. “Don't give me all the drama and how somebody raised their voice at you. If we did that, that would be the whole newscast. If I talk to you about how many times people hang up on me … that's just part of what you do every day. You have to try to get two sides.” She uses a hypothetical example of one political opponent accusing the other of not paying taxes. “You do your homework behind the scenes and figure it out and do the legwork,” she says. “And then you go ask the person. If they don't want to comment, then you're up against that, too. But you don’t put yourself in the middle of it and say, ‘I don't think he paid his taxes.’”

Rodriguez agrees, echoing the statement that everyone — including consumers — needs to check their sources. “What I've discovered is that you as an individual can have an effect,” he says. “With these new ways of production, distribution and credibility with your friends, with your families, with your coworkers, you can, in effect, change people's minds — if you are respectful and you are informative, and not inflammatory.”

Nesi offers a different take on fake news, as a more “traditional” television reporter. “I experience fake news more as a slur than anything,” he says. “People yell things at me when they don't like an accurate story. And people joke about it now, right? I'll get on the scale and say ‘fake news’ to the scale in the morning.” He goes on to clarify the difference between a mistake and intentionality, recalling the earlier question about misleading headlines. “I am going to get stories wrong,” he said. “I'm going to spell someone's name wrong, I'm going to get a fact wrong. We cannot help it because we are human, and we are imperfect. And this is a human enterprise.”

"The reason fake news is effective is because it's reinforcing an opinion."

The layers of fake news, and the multitudes of forms it can take, makes for a varied discussion with multiple viewpoints. While Nesi often experiences fake news as a slur, Rodriguez sees certain fake news stories causing real harm and having a profit motive. “This epidemic of fake news online, it didn't begin with Trump,” he says. “It began with a bunch of guys your age in Macedonia, who discovered that if they put out outrageous information online, people will click on it. If you click on it, you already have given that person a fraction of a cent. They made hundreds of thousands of dollars by just purposely releasing information that was fake.” Rodriguez cites wide-ranging examples of the damaging effects of these stories, from the measles epidemic to Pizza-Gate. “So this is more than just a political persuasion or an impact on our knowledge,” he adds. “It actually puts people’s lives at risk.”

Citizen journalism was also a hot-topic issue for students in the audience, particularly the trend of passerby catching action on their phones and tweeting it out without context. Nesi maintains that most of this is done without ill-intent, but it can have damaging consequences. “Think about an emergency situation, a tweet that says this road is closed, and it goes viral somehow because it gets picked up,” he says. “And the road’s not actually closed, but it leads to a traffic jam here, which means people aren't evacuated properly there. That's just an example of how the unvetted free flow of information, particularly in an emergency situation, can really cause trouble.”

Discussions around news media of any type can often become difficult and frustrating. It’s why JWU is passionate about bringing industry experts — who are sometimes on opposing sides of an argument — to speak to students and respond to those questions. “You surround yourself with like-minded people normally, right?” Granahan says. “You’re not going to go out on Saturday night with a bunch of people you don't care for. But that's not the real world. Because when you get into the workplace, you have to talk to people that are not like-minded. You have to process that information somehow. You can’t just punch somebody in the nose because you don't agree with them.” The more students see the practice of constructive dialogue, the more they will be able to apply it to their own lives, inside and outside of the workplace.

“It is valuable for college students to hear not just from their professors, but from people within the industry, how important that is,” Professor Rory Senerchia adds. “This isn't just their majors, it is their lives.”