FAKE NEWS: The media's existential crisis

For news consumers the relentless discussion of “fake news” can make it seem like reality itself is suddenly up for grabs.  And for those who write and produce journalism, it can seem like a media Twilight Zone, where ‘All The News Fit To Print,’ as it says on the New York Times masthead, is now decided by social media shares, likes and retweets. 

FOX 9 FAKE NEWS TEST: Headlines, answers and analysis

“For me, fake news is something deliberately fabricated and knowingly disseminated with the purpose of misleading people,” said Prof. Jane Kirtley, Acting Dean of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism.

Kirtley believes the controversy over fake news has been brewing for decades. “I believe forces on the right and the left, activists on both sides of the election, have been trying to undermine confidence in the mainstream media,” said Kirtley.

For some, the definition of ‘fake news’ has shifted in recent months to include not just something false, but issues of bias as well. 

“People have a tendency to seek out information we agree with,” said Prof. Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

Zimdars analyzed nearly a thousand web sites offering news and information and identified several different kinds of fake news. She identified sites where facts and sources are made up as fake, distinguishing it from sources that offer information with bias, clickbait sites with sensational headlines, conspiracy sites and satire. 

But she says millenials are not necessarily better at recognizing the differences. 

“I think it’s partially because they might not have the same understanding of legacy media,” said Zimdars. For millennials, she said, “everything is filtered through their computer screens.”

“I think you and me and everyone else needs to say what it is: lies,” said Daniel Levitin, a neurologist and author of “Weaponized Lies.” Levitin encourages consumers of news to become their own fact checkers, by examining the URL addresses of web sites and taking a closer look at the style and writing to see if it represents traditional journalism. 

“Just ask yourself a few simple questions if you can verify it or not,” Levitin said. “Don’t be part of the problem of circulating something a million times that isn’t true.”

FOX 9 Investigators:  The ‘Fake News’ Test

The FOX 9 Investigators developed a “Fake News Test,” and surveyed more than 1,100 people. The vast majority of respondents took the survey through Facebook, a frequent source of ‘fake news’ throughout the 2016 Election Cycle. The respondents are therefore, self-selecting in this survey, which is not considered scientific. FAKE NEWS TEST: Headlines, answers and analysis

We found many of the respondents had a difficult time distinguishing fake versus real headlines. 

For example, a recent headline from CNN that read, ‘Intel Chiefs Presented Trump with Claims of Russian Efforts to Compromise Him,” was considered fake by 39 percent of all respondents. The story was correctly considered real by 61 percent of the respondents.

In his first press conference as President, Mr. Trump also said the story was fake. “I’m not going to give you a question,” President Trump said to CNN White House Reporter, Jim Acosta. “Your organization is fake news,” said the President. 

Even the media’s honest mistakes are now considered malicious. Most polls failed to predict President Trump’s Electoral College victory over Hillary Clinton, including a headline in The Washington Post on the eve of the election, ‘Hillary Clinton has enough electoral votes to win the White House in final Fix map.” The majority of respondents, 76 percent, considered this real headline, from a mainstream news organization, to be fake. 

Some of the more controversial ‘fake news’ headlines concern President Trump’s senior advisor, Steve Bannon, the former publisher of the alt right web site Breitbart News. Bannon recently told the New York Times he considers the media to be “the opposition party,” not the Democrats. 

But when it comes to Bannon, people seem to have difficult distinguishing between real and fake headlines. 

“White Nationalists See Advocate in Steve Bannon..,” is from a Nov. 15 story from CNN. In our survey, 51 percent believe the headline is fake.

That same day, the New York Times published a staff editorial with the headline, “Steve ‘Turn On The Hate’ Bannon, In the White House.” The sensational sounding headline fooled many of our test takers, 60 percent  thought the headline was fake. 

A headline from NPR on Feb. 8 seemed bizarre at first blush, ’Steve Bannon Aligns With Vatican Hard-Liners Who Oppose Pope Francis,’ but the story is based on solid reporting by the New York Times regarding Bannon’s relationship with American Cardinal Raymond Burke with on-the-record sources. But, 69 percent believed the headline was fake.

Other headlines were so absurd, our respondents were incredulous. “President Obama Confirms He Will Refuse to Leave Office if Trump is Elected” or a “Confirmed: CIA Plans to Stop Trump Inauguration,” were considered fake by 94 percent of those surveyed.

To establish a baseline of belief, we asked two questions with broad scientific consensus. The first, “Human Behavior Is Contributing to Global Climate Change,” was considered a fact by 63 percent, 7 percent said it was fiction, and 30% said the statement was a matter of opinion. That was similar to the pattern for the second statement, “Vaccines are, overall, safe and beneficial.” Among the respondents, 77 percent said it was a statement of fact, 4 percent said it was fiction, and 20 percent said it was a statement of opinion.