The Press and Public Trust in an Age of Fake News

A Conversation with Keven Willey, Vice President and Editorial Page Editor of The Dallas Morning News, and Olivier Knox, White House Correspondent of Yahoo! News

The lines between fact, fiction, exaggeration, and honest reporting blur in today's fiercely competitive media environment.  A myriad of opinions from countless sources mean that the public's ability to assess the validity of news is more important than ever before.

White House press conference, March 17, 2017.

Media organizations are experiencing financial challenges, a rapid change in information sources, and a declining public trust in the press, one of America’s most important democratic institutions. In an electronic roundtable interview with The Catalyst, Keven Willey, vice president and editorial page editor of The Dallas Morning News and the immediate past co-chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and Olivier Knox, White House correspondent of Yahoo! News and former White House and congressional correspondent for Agence France-Press, explore how the media and democracy can adapt and survive in the internet age. 

A recent Edelman global trust barometer shows that trust in the media declined more than trust in business and government. What does that mean for mainstream media, whether the Dallas Morning News, Yahoo, Washington Post or Politico? How should the media respond?

Willey: It affirms the importance of providing sound, fact-based, transparent, and trustworthy news and analysis. Our society is awash in information from myriad sources; the key is discerning fact from fiction.

Our society is awash in information from myriad sources; the key is discerning fact from fiction.
--Keven Willey

Knox: I’m not wholly sure how these drooping trust numbers correlate with numbers of viewers, readers, listeners, etc. which is good in one way (I want the news media to be healthy in a business sense) and not so good in another (reduces the imperative for self-scrutiny, a process that should be robust and ongoing for the news media to be healthy in an ethics and quality-control sense).

We’re due for a reevaluation of certain practices that erode that trust. It doesn’t need to be entirely public, and it will never be industry-wide, but news outlets need to ask themselves some questions. I’ll flag two here.

We’re due for a reevaluation of certain practices that erode that trust. It doesn’t need to be entirely public, and it will never be industry-wide, but news outlets need to ask themselves some questions.
--Olivier Knox

When I started out, summer of 1996, my editor would never have dreamed of letting me use truly anonymous sources (the “truly” here is meant to exempt traditionally anonymous sources – the spokesperson for the British prime minister is typically not named).  I think we need to reassess how and when we use them. 

One of the most uncomfortable positions in which I regularly find myself is as the lone reporter on a panel with opinion journalists or actual partisans. This casts reporting as being in opposition to partisanship – and of course in one sense it is, but what I mean is that when I correct an error of fact or analysis, it looks to the viewer like I’m a partisan on the other side. That’s unhealthy. 

You both have touched on the importance of reliable, trustworthy information. Is it possible today to guarantee the quality of information? If so, how? Is that fewer anonymous sources? Something else?

Knox: While choice of sources clearly reflects on a reporter, anonymous sources shift the credibility burden from the source to the reporter really dramatically. And when an anonymous source makes a partisan point that hurts us. Think of the New York Times letting an unnamed Bush aide say John Kerry “looks French.” Now that NYT reporter is on the hook.

I’m not sure you can guarantee the quality of the information completely and every time. But quotes must be correct. Statistics must come from reputable sources. Analysis should not wail “unprecedented” when precedent is easily located with a few keystrokes, or in consultation with experienced colleagues. Those are the kinds of things in our control.

And we should be more deliberate. First with the news means nothing if you then also have to be first with the correction.

Willey: There are certainly ways readers can enhance their confidence in the quality of news, information, and analysis they're consuming. Here are just three.

First, how transparent is the sourcing of the information? Information passed off as fact without an indication of where the information came from should be viewed with some degree of skepticism.  

Second, how reliable is the source? In other words, does the source of the information have a record of credibility, reason, logic? Does the source represent a special interest? Critical to note here that this assessment is separate and apart from whether one "agrees" or "disagrees" with the information being put forth.  

Third, does the info pass the smell test? I recently heard from a reader who insisted that "Dems know that abortion is shrinking their numbers and to compensate, they import their useful future Democrats and get us to pay for it."  

Knox: Keven's last point is a good point of departure for a related conversation about interaction with readers. I have found interactions with Trump voters over the last 18 months or so to be frequently valuable in terms of building trust – there are some things we take for granted, and explain poorly, that undermine trust. 

I have found interactions with Trump voters over the last 18 months or so to be frequently valuable in terms of building trust – there are some things we take for granted, and explain poorly, that undermine trust.
--Olivier Knox

Willey: I so agree with Olivier about the importance of interacting with readers. We can learn so much about what's important to them simply by listening and asking questions. Many of us spend hours doing that each day. And sometimes they learn a bit from us, too, like how seriously we take this stuff and carefully we walk it through.  

We can learn so much about what's important to [readers] simply by listening and asking questions. Many of us spend hours doing that each day. And sometimes they learn a bit from us, too, like how seriously we take this stuff and carefully we walk it through. 
--Keven Willey

The example I cited is the sort of assertion that demands a source, some sort of tethering or rooting in fact. And barring that, it's the sort of information that journalists and readers should be confident in setting aside as not real news. 

Knox: One of the most valuable frames for interacting with readers has been inviting them to ask me questions - rather than the reverse. You hear things like "When you phrased X that way it sounded like a criticism why did you say it?"  

How do you define fake news? What can be done about it?

Willey: There are so many definitions, ranging from outright falsehoods perpetuated for financial gain to simply any "news I disagree with." Actually, Nathaniel Persily does a good job of describing what he considers four types of fake news in his recent article titled "Can Democracy Survive the Internet" in the April Journal of Democracy. 

Protesters at Los Angeles International Airport rally against the travel ban executive order in January 2017. (Kayla Velasquez)

My definition of fake news is really information that is passed off as factual or true and that isn't. You could argue, I suppose, that satire is a form of fake news. After all, the satire of The Onion is demonstrably not true. The distinction I'd make is that The Onion isn't seeking to deceive; it doesn't expect its readers/viewers to literally believe its reports so much as it's hoping to use the satire to make a broader political point.  

But reports that are ginned up with the express purpose of making money, or with the intent to spread misinformation, or - in the most extreme - automated distribution of "news" ... that's fake news. And it's the most dangerous weapon against civil society these days. 

The degree to which you disagree with the news, or that it challenges assumptions, or that it is "unpleasant" - none of that is a factor in considering its "fakeness."  

The degree to which you disagree with the news, or that it challenges assumptions, or that it is "unpleasant" - none of that is a factor in considering its "fakeness."
--Keven Willey

Knox: One of the worst things to come out of this cycle has been the use of “fake news” to mean “news that challenges my partisan beliefs” or “news that turns out to be inaccurate.”  

The term originally referred to material entirely made up – the totally fictional, garbage notion of a global pedophile ring run by Democrats out of a D.C. pizza joint, for instance. That’s not the same as “TV Network X got a quote wrong.”  

Repurposing it to give people who think the sheep are the heroes of Animal Farm a weapon against the news media is truly toxic. There are short-, medium-, and long-term ways to address it. The one I really want to focus on is equipping readers/listeners/viewers with the tools necessary not to fall for it.  

One of the worst things to come out of this cycle has been the use of “fake news” to mean “news that challenges my partisan beliefs” or “news that turns out to be inaccurate.” 
--Olivier Knox

What does it mean for the press as well as our democracy if voters cannot distinguish between real and fake news? This gets to the question that Persily raises about whether democracy can survive the internet.

Knox: If true, it would mean our republic is screwed.  

Fake news corrupts two vital characteristics upon which our system relies: Citizens who are informed and also able to make value judgments. You cannot act in your own perceived self-interest if you’re relying on misinformation.  

Fake news corrupts two vital characteristics upon which our system relies: Citizens who are informed and also able to make value judgments.
--Olivier Knox

Democracy can survive the internet. What may kill it over the longer term is an educational system (schools and parents) that somehow fails to teach things like, oh, what the three branches of government are, to large segments of the population. 

Willey: First, it means we're not doing our job as journalists if we're not making it clear what's real versus what's fake. That requires being transparent about our sourcing, fair in our assessments, and always challenging ourselves to assure that our allegiance is to truth, however uncomfortable, and not to an ideology or partisan advantage. We must hold ourselves accountable to sound journalistic standards, admit error when it occurs, and redouble efforts to be the best we can be. 

It also means that readers must do their job and become engaged citizens. They have an obligation to try to understand the world around them, to be critical thinkers, to dispassionately assess ideas and possibilities. Democracy depends on an informed electorate. The "informed" responsibility lies with both those doing the reporting and those doing the consuming.  

Would covering the voter more than – or at least equal to – the candidates help reduce the trust gap? And can media organizations do so if they no longer have enough staff and resources to send people on the road?

Knox: I might put it as “covering the issues more than – or at least equal to – the candidate.” Figure out major issues on voters’ minds. Look at the data. Look at the history. Talk to the experts. Talk to the voters. Etc., etc.  

If you have the money to travel everywhere with a candidate, you have the money to travel everywhere without a candidate. Or a mix of the two. And a lot of the preparation and research that I described above can be done in a D.C. office, relying on state-gathered stats, for example, or the census, or state polls, etc. 

Willey: Understanding what's going on in America - not just within our own bubbles (e.g. media, academia, government, etc.) - is critically important to good reporting. And it's not cost prohibitive to see how others live, work, play, and think. What it requires is breaking out of the pack to carve a distinct and meaningful trail. It also requires readers prepared to value such independence.  

Understanding what's going on in America - not just within our own bubbles (e.g. media, academia, government, etc.) - is critically important to good reporting. And it's not cost prohibitive. One doesn't have to fly halfway across the country to step outside of one's bubble to see how others live, work, play, and think.
--Keven Willey

There is certainly carping about mainstream media, including the trust deficit we started out talking about. But what advantages do mainstream journalists still bring?  

Willey: Established journalistic standards, scale, experience, and a record.  

Most news organizations ascribe to generally accepted standards and a Code of Ethics. That's not to say we always hit the mark, but it does mean that we have an established mark that we strive to hit - and that helps hold us accountable when we fall short.  

Newsrooms are shrinking, but they are still full of journalists trained to be critical thinkers and to serve our representative democracy. Think about so much of what we know about the world - from your local school board's tax rate to U.S. military activities abroad, from abuses at Walter Reed VA hospital to the flood of highly addictive opioids into depressed areas across America.  

You know those things in most cases because of the work of journalists.  

The Dallas Morning News headquarters

Knox: I don't mind carping about the media! And I tell everyone to consume the news skeptically. Not mistrustfully, just mindful that sources serve agendas, reporters can get things wrong, etc. I'm a trained observer, not an oracle. 

I don't mind carping about the media! And I tell everyone to consume the news skeptically. Not mistrustfully, just mindful that sources serve agendas, reporters can get things wrong, etc. I'm a trained observer, not an oracle.
--Olivier Knox

Despite all of our flaws, though, the basic arguments for having an independent - even adversarial - press covering matters of civic importance (politics, foreign policy, the economy, social ills) haven't changed much since the founding of the republic. Do you want to learn about your president just from paid staffers, blood relatives, and partisan allies? That's like buying a used car for your mother-in-law after the salesman invites you to admire the paint job, and without checking the maintenance and accident records. You certainly could do it, but that comes with dangers. 

Growing up, French friends counted on me to explain America to them, and American friends relied on me to explain the world. It gave me an appreciation for collecting and providing information in a straightforward way, and made me understand the responsibility of the information-provider. 

Like any powerful institution in a republic, we deserve to be held to account. We owe our readers transparency when we make mistakes. And we need to be better about keeping the internal conversation gig about what we can and must do better.  

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