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Why We Need to Know the Difference Between Fake News and Real News

Amy Mitchell of Pew Research Center and Mike Wilson of the Dallas Morning News discuss the press and democratic freedom

Article by William McKenzie February 21, 2018 //   10 minute read
Amy Mitchell and Mike Wilson (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

In early February, Amy Mitchell, co-author of the Pew Research Center’s annual State of the News Media report, and Mike Wilson, editor of the Dallas Morning News, participated in Engage at the Bush Center, presented by Highland Capital Management. Before the sold-out event, which was entitled Constitutional Conversations: James Madison and Today’s Media, the pair discussed the press and democratic freedom with Bill McKenzie, the Bush Institute’s editorial director and a former Dallas Morning News editorial columnist.

Let’s start with something people are talking about, and that is fake news. How do you all define it?

Mitchell: The way we refer to it in research with the public is that we talk about completely made-up news and news that is not completely accurate. We do see a distinction among the public between those two. While 32% of the public saying they frequently come across completely made-up news but many more, 51%, come across inaccurate news. There is definitely a spectrum.

What would be an example of inaccurate news?

Mitchell: There could be a bias that leads to a spinning of a story in a certain way. It takes the roots of a story or a current event and adds elements that make it not wholly accurate through omission or having the facts wrong. And it could be done for malicious purposes.

What is an example of something that’s made up?

Wilson: Here’s an example: There is a child sex ring operating in the basement of a pizza shop in Washington, D.C. and Hillary Clinton is controlling the ring.

Amy’s definition of fake news is right on. I would add the most unfortunate definition is any completely accurate story that doesn’t totally reflect the reality they would like it to reflect. The true story upsets their view of things politically, so they deny it and call it “fake news.”

What does it mean for our democracy if people can’t tell the difference between fake and real news?

Wilson: We have to work from a shared set of facts to make decisions as a body politic. If we can’t agree on what the facts are, we certainly can’t find the solutions together. This is a big concern for me as a journalist.

If we can’t agree on what the facts are, we certainly can’t find the solutions together. This is a big concern for me as a journalist.

Mitchell: When we ask the public, two-thirds say that completely made-up news has caused a great deal of confusion about the basic facts around current events. So, there is a sense, even among the public that may be parsing the information according to their views, that this is a problem, and that not understanding the facts gets in the way of us having a common understanding of events.

The Pew Research Center’s 2017 State of the News Media report showed a decline in local TV viewing. What does it mean for democracy if local news reporting, either print or television, loses readers and viewers?

Mitchell: To a very large degree, print newspapers have already had their audience transition to a digital format. When we ask people their preference of reading, watching, or listening to the news, 80% of people who say they prefer to read the news say they prefer the web. That audience has moved, which we are not seeing as much in television.

But we have started to see a precipitous decline in television as a platform, and there is an age gap. For several years, we have seen far fewer young people getting news through television in any form, let alone local TV, than older people. Between 2016 and 2017, the shift we started seeing was older people moving away from TV and to the web. The rise in digital and decline in TV is largely coming from the older populations.

If we see a move away from local news institutions, what does that do to the institutions of the community and the connections in the community?

Mitchell: In some of our research we have seen a very strong connection between closely following the news, local news in particular, and civic engagement. There is a positive correlation both ways. Closely following the news ties to higher engagement in civic life on several different measures.

In some of our research we have seen a very strong connection between closely following the news, local news in particular, and civic engagement. There is a positive correlation both ways. Closely following the news ties to higher engagement in civic life on several different measures.

Local news also has been an area that we consistently see as one of the strongest areas of interest among members of the public. In early 2017, when we asked about following local news, national news, and international news, we saw national news get slightly higher numbers than local news for the first time in many years. Normally, local consistently ranks higher in terms of what people are following closely.

Mike, you lead a local newspaper that has a strong history of helping set an agenda or bringing issues to the fore. If there is a further decline in local newspapers, what impact are we likely to see in our democracy?

Wilson: A local news organization like the Dallas Morning News has an important watchdog function in the community. We surface stories that help people make decisions about how they want to be governed and whether they are satisfied with the work of the government they are paying for. We fear the loss of that. Unchecked government is not anything that James Madison would have wanted to see.

And, as you say, surfacing issues from an editorial point of view is still a critical part of our role. It is important to have editorial voices saying “this is what we think is best for the community” and inviting a conversation. If that function goes away, there is a real loss of leadership in the community and loss of direction.

Can digital news sites play the same watchdog role?

Wilson: I strongly believe they can. We have data that shows people eat up watchdog reporting online. They spend a lot of time on it. Often watchdog work is on their path to subscription.

The one challenge we have is the institutional editorial. Everyone knew where to find that in their newspaper. That is a little bit of a lost land in the digital world. We need to do a better job as an industry of saying that this is an institutional view – and explaining what an institutional view is. The loss of civic engagement in the country nationally means that people are less familiar with the esoteric idea that an institution can have a view.

Mitchell: One challenge in setting an agenda in the digital space is the multitude of voices. The public has access to information across the world and country in a way they didn’t have before. But unless there is a very large event to pull people together, it can be hard for a unifying agenda to come through.

That may be different at the local level. But when you think overall of the many storylines of the day, it can be harder for people to feel there is one topic that is the news of the day and important to discuss.

The Journal of Democracy published a column last year with the title: “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” The article probed the impact so many sources of information might have on democracy. How do you all answer that question?

Mitchell: We don’t predict, so I won’t answer the question exactly. I will say that it’s part of the discussion, debate, and conversation that we are spending a lot of time on now.

The realization is that there are a lot of different dynamics that come with the web. Like most things that exist to a large degree in a democracy, there can be pros and cons. Part of what the country is doing now is thinking about how these elements and the digital environment, which is not going to go away, move forward.

Wilson: I get up every day because I believe the answer is yes. If we provide people with good information digitally, and in print, but mainly digitally, they will be better informed voters and will keep the republic standing.

There are real concerns about the potential for confusion and dissension to be created online. The answer ultimately lies with consumers, not media companies. Americans are going to have to take responsibility for vetting the information they see and asking the right questions about it to make sure they are well informed.

Mitchell: Mike is absolutely right. A lot more responsibility is put on a member of the public.