In the final hours of the U.S. election, Republican nominee Donald Trump speculated on Fox News that the contest was rigged against him. “There are machines,” he noted. “You put down Republican and it registers them as a Democrat.” If there was, as he suggested, a conspiracy to manipulate the election in Hillary Clinton’s favor, it clearly didn’t work. In the early hours of November 9, Trump became the U.S. president-elect. His comments marked the end of an election cycle marred by conspiracy theories, outright lies, and growing concerns over the prevalence of fake news on Facebook.
This landscape presents a profound challenge for journalists. Now that the U.S. campaign is over, how should newsrooms respond to a media ecosystem in which every constituency has its own filter bubble of news, social media is awash with misinformation, and traditional news outlets are so poorly trusted by the public?
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” the late Democratic Senator from New York Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked. But much of this presidential campaign has been characterized by competing sets of “facts.” Donald Trump bluntly questioned Hillary Clinton’s honesty throughout the campaign, calling her “crooked” and “corrupt,” while Clinton repeatedly urged voters to fact-check Trump’s claims. Newsrooms and independent fact-checking sites did exactly that, keeping running tabs on each candidate’s veracity. The referendum on British membership of the European Union raised similar challenges for U.K. newsrooms, as both politicians and journalists attacked the lack of scrutiny given to controversial claims about the consequences of Brexit.
The idea of a post-truth era has been percolating through public discourse for at least a decade. In 2005, Stephen Colbert popularized the concept of “truthiness” to describe statements people feel are intuitively true—regardless of whether they are backed up by facts. Five years later, in a column for Grist, blogger David Roberts coined the phrase “post-truth politics,” suggesting voters were more likely to choose a party aligned with their identity and values, and consciously seek out evidence to support its proposals, rather than assess the facts and then choose a party. Science journalists have been long at the forefront of this dilemma when covering issues for which the scientific consensus has not been accepted by influential conservative politicians and commentators—the MMR vaccine, climate change, the age of the Earth.
The idea of a post-truth era has been percolating through public discourse for at least a decade
In 2004, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” attacked CNN’s “Crossfire” for “partisan hackery,” accusing it and programs like it of debasing public discourse by reducing political debate to shouting matches. That critique seems almost quaint in the age of ultra-partisan news organizations such as Breitbart News. The site has been accused, even by its own reporters, of pandering to Trump. Last spring, when Breitbart staffer Michelle Fields was grabbed at a press conference by Trump’s then campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, the site posted an article questioning her account. Fields and three other staffers, including editor at large Ben Shapiro, resigned days later. Shapiro criticized the site’s executive chairman Steve Bannon in his resignation statement, saying “he has shaped the company into Trump’s personal Pravda, to the extent that he abandoned and undercut his own reporter.” In August, Bannon took leave from Breitbart to serve as Donald Trump’s campaign chief executive.
The left, too, has partisan media outlets, although Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of The Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” argues there is nothing to match the power, reach, and aggression of sites like Breitbart, radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, or television channels like Fox News. “For 70 years, conservatives in the U.S. have been building alternative media outlets and arguing that the mainstream is biased towards liberals,” Hemmer says. “Conservative media . . . has worked very hard to discredit the mainstream media and leveraged that distrust for political purposes.”
Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, one of the first to take seriously Trump’s candidacy and his supporters, says this alternative conservative media has “acculturated readers to comfort with conspiracy theory and unreality.” He cites a 2015 CNN poll that found 28 percent of Republicans did not believe Barack Obama was born in the U.S., even though the president published his longform birth certificate in 2011. “It was an indicator of the degree to which people had become alienated from plain, indisputable facts,” says Osnos. “You have to put that at the feet of Fox News and Breitbart and WND [World Net Daily], outlets that did not exist 20 years ago and do not operate with the same journalistic standards and practice that we describe when we use the word ‘journalism.’”
The rise of fake news distributed across social media isn’t helping, either. After concerns were raised about Facebook bias, the company shifted from human moderators to algorithms instead. Since then, several fake stories—such as one claiming that Fox News’s Megyn Kelly was fired for supporting Hillary Clinton—have trended on the site.
Meanwhile, there has been a rise in political pages on the platform that disseminate false information. In a recent analysis of more than 1,000 posts from six large hyper-partisan Facebook pages, three from the left and three from the right, BuzzFeed found that posts from right-wing outlets were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false 38 percent of the time; posts from left-wing outlets were either a mixture of true and false or mostly false 19 percent of the time.
John Herrman chronicled the rise of hyper-partisan Facebook pages for the The New York Times Magazine in August. A typical example, Make America Great, has 450,000 followers and posts content with headlines such as “No Media Is Telling You About the Muslim Who Attacked Donald Trump, So We Will.” This linked to a story falsely accusing Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. serviceman slain in Iraq who criticized Trump at the Democratic convention for questioning the patriotism of Muslims, of being a “promoter of Islamic Shariah law.”
When Herrman interviewed Make America Great’s owner Adam Nicoloff, he discovered that the 35-year-old Web marketer outsourced content creation to a couple in the Philippines, who were tasked with finding viral stories elsewhere and rewriting them. Yet thanks to Facebook’s algorithm, which prioritizes posts from friends and family over professional news outlets, stories from Make America Great appear in users’ newsfeeds with the same framing and weight as a carefully researched report from, say, Mother Jones. “The Internet has had a flattening effect,” says Brian Stelter, host of “Reliable Sources” on CNN. “My mom’s opinion on Facebook looks the same as a thoroughly sourced story. One man’s blog looks the same as the The New York Times.”
According to Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, it makes commercial sense for Facebook to serve its users content that aligns with their existing beliefs. But it also serves to undermine informed civil discourse: “The whole of the Internet, of which Facebook is a growing part, is fighting tooth and nail every day for two more seconds of our time. And people like to spend time with people who agree with them. This is commercially sensible from their point of view, but potentially civically challenging in terms of creating strong polarized online communities.”
Some 62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from sites such as Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, according to Pew Research Center, up from 49 percent in 2012. But this “news” is becoming increasingly unmoored from factual sources. “There’s no doubt that the new information environment is dense and chaotic and full of falsehoods,” says Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. “We see guiding readers through it—covering the infrastructure that promotes fake news, aggressively debunking hoaxes—as a core part of journalism in 2016 and beyond. You can’t just cover your ears and ignore it anymore.”
The problem of “post-truth politics” is not unique to this presidential election, or even to America. During the June referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, Faisal Islam, political editor of Sky News, interviewed then Minister for Justice in the Conservative government, Michael Gove, a prominent campaigner for the U.K.’s exit from the E.U. Islam listed some of the countries, institutions and individuals warning that Brexit would damage the British economy. The list included India, China, and the U.S., the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the chief executive of the National Health Service, and leaders of several trade unions.
Gove’s response: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts . . . from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best.”
The remark epitomized a campaign dogged by widespread misinformation and, sometimes, outright lies. One of the most notorious misrepresentations was the claim by Leave campaigners, emblazoned across buses throughout the country, that “We send the E.U. £350 million every week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” During a televised debate, Remain campaigner and Labour MP Angela Eagle called the slogan a “lie.” The non-partisan U.K. Statistics Authority issued a statement noting that the figure did not include Britain’s rebate, and warned that “the continued use of a gross figure in contexts that imply it is a net figure is misleading and undermines trust in official statistics.” The £350m also did not include European Union aid given to agriculture and other sectors.
Indeed, the day after the British voted to leave the E.U., Nigel Farage, then leader of the anti-E.U. and anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party, said the pledge was a “mistake.” Three days after the vote, former Cabinet minister and prominent Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith claimed he “never said that during the course of the election … What we actually said was a significant amount of it would go to the NHS,” despite photographs of him standing in front of the campaign bus bearing the slogan.
What is not disputed is that the number stuck in voters’ minds. A week before the referendum, polling firm Ipsos MORI found that 47 percent of the public believed the £350m claim was true.
The problem of “post-truth politics” is not unique to this presidential election, or even to America
The British public broadcaster, the BBC, came under particular criticism, from both sides, for its handling of the Brexit debate. Leave campaigners accused it of being staffed by the type of well-to-do metropolitans more inclined to vote Remain; the other side argued it was being too generous to fringe viewpoints in the name of editorial “balance.” All this contributed to a climate in which staff worried about the Corporation’s mandate to cover subjects with “due impartiality,” defined by its guidelines as being “inclusive, considering the broad perspective and ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.”
During the Brexit debate, one producer worried that campaigners were using stopwatches to check that both the Leave and Remain advocates received equal airtime. Another BBC journalist was concerned about a package on the science community’s attitude toward Brexit, as he could not find any prominent scientists in favor of leaving the E.U. But due to BBC guidelines, both sides had to be represented.
Ryan Thomas, assistant professor of journalism studies at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, argues that this imperative of impartiality can be self-defeating. “Balance is a tool,” he says. “The goal is to find the correct balance—where the weight of evidence lies, not necessarily 50/50.” Similar pressures push other organizations, state-supported and not, toward bland “he said, she said” coverage.
But the pressure to be “balanced” belies an important fact: False equivalence is itself a form of untruth. According to Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has forced newsrooms to confront false equivalency head-on. “This issue is a tricky one, but one I believe that journalism as a profession needs greater moral courage to pursue,” Mele said at a recent Nieman Foundation for Journalism seminar, adding that when it comes to Trump, “His lying is of greater frequency, magnitude, and intensity than Hillary’s.”
Fact-checking site PolitiFact deemed 33 of Clinton’s 263 fact-checked statements as of early October false or “pants on fire”; 133 were deemed true or mostly true. PolitiFact deemed 144 of Trump’s 274 fact-checked statements false or “pants on fire”; 43 were deemed true or mostly true.
In some areas of coverage, the default position of reporting claim and counter-claim with equal weight has reached its limits. “I don’t actually believe any more in the idea that there’s abstract objectivity,” Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, said at a recent Nieman talk. “The best journalism is based on thorough, deep reporting and, once you have actually done that, the weight of evidence sometimes [shows] something to be true, and a good journalist doesn’t need to hesitate about saying, ‘Someone told the truth.’”
Some news organizations dispensed with “objectivity” some time ago. BuzzFeed’s Smith recognized early on that reporting on Trump necessitated relinquishing typical assumptions about political coverage. “The structure of political reporting is to tacitly assume that candidates typically tell the truth about basic things, and that lies and open appeals to bigotry are disqualifying,” he says. “Trump violated all these rules without—in the eyes of the Republican primary voters who mattered—disqualifying himself.”
In December of 2015, Smith declared that BuzzFeed staff could call Donald Trump both a liar and a racist. “He’s out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign,” he wrote in a memo. “BuzzFeed News’s reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion; these are facts … There’s nothing partisan about accurately describing Donald Trump.” BuzzFeed eschews neutrality in other beats, too. “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides,” states the site’s code of ethics.
As the presidential campaign became nastier, and Trump’s falsehoods piled up, other outlets followed BuzzFeed’s lead. The Huffington Post—reversing its earlier decision to file Trump news under entertainment—published an editor’s note with a story in June that read: “Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims—1.6 billion members of an entire religion—from entering the U.S.” In September, in the introduction to The New Yorker’s “Trump and the Truth” series, editor David Remnick wrote that Trump “does not so much struggle with the truth as strangle it altogether.”
“Journalists are too squeamish about just saying a candidate is lying,” says Amanda Terkel, politics managing editor at HuffPo. “It was a big deal when The New York Times used the word ‘lie’ in a headline to refer to something Trump had said. But if you don’t call Trump’s birther conspiracy a ‘lie,’ then what is a lie?”
For some, the failures in covering Trump were in not applying this approach as soon as he declared his candidacy. “At the beginning of this campaign, reporters were not aware enough of the level of anxiety, fear, and frustration among voters,” says The New Yorker’s Osnos. “For many months there were reporters who were still too light-hearted about the Trump phenomenon, long after it should have been plain to them that it was not remotely funny. It was a mistake to allow him to go on television, month after month, phoning into interviews that would ordinarily require the person to be in the studio and subject to the kind of scrutiny that an in-person interview produces. But instead, because he was treated as something between a joke and a boon for ratings, he was allowed to call in. That was an abdication of responsibility.”
Seeing their candidate treated as a joke left many Trump supporters further alienated from the mainstream media. Osnos cites a “cultural suspicion of elites”—including journalists—among Trump supporters, and CNN’s Stelter adds that many voters feel alienated by what they see as an “Acela-corridor bias” among political reporters in New York and Washington.
While newsrooms have begun to talk more about diversity, it is more often seen in terms of race and gender than class and geography. But if voters are making decisions based on identity and values, rather than facts, it becomes even more important for newsrooms to look and sound like their audiences. “Messengers of The Right” author Hemmer urges the media to include “more voices from working class backgrounds, who are not white, who are women. That’s really critical, because the sets of questions you’re going to ask are different.”
Better training in dealing with facts and figures can help, too. Most journalists come from a liberal arts background, which can leave them feeling ill-equipped to deal with competing truth claims in areas like science, economics or even polling. Live television, because of its fast-moving nature, is a particular challenge. Dame Jil Matheson, the former U.K. national statistician, recently led a report into the use of statistics for the BBC. She says that, far from having had enough of experts, viewers and readers need to hear more from them. Too often, she discovered, “people were allowed to make a claim and then the only challenge came from a member of an opposition party. That doesn’t serve the audience. It turns stats and evidence into a political football.”
After Britain’s E.U. referendum, a study by Cardiff University examined 517 statistical claims made during the campaign, finding that, although one in five was challenged, 65.2 percent of this challenging came from rival politicians, not journalists. “In relying so heavily on campaigners without journalistic arbitration or seeking expert opinion, viewers were often left with little more than a statistical tit-for-tat between rival camps,” wrote Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis of Cardiff University. “Voters complained about the lack of hard information even at a late stage in the campaign.”
False equivalence is itself a form of untruth
Technology can also play a role in sharpening coverage. Google now tags fact-checking sites in its News search results. There is now a greater clamor for Facebook to weed out fake news from its trending topics and users’ newsfeeds. And to puncture filter bubbles, aggregator The Daily Mixer compiles stories from a variety of news outlets, but doesn’t show where they came from until after they are read.
What technology can do “is observe claims which pop up and have already been debunked, and identify its trail of propagation—here are the users spreading it, here is where it’s being repeated,” says Gabriel Pogrund, a Google News fellow who has spent time at Full Fact, a British fact-checking charity. Pogrund cites Pheme, a Web application being developed to track rumors as they spread across social media. The goal is to automate the process of identifying material as speculation, controversy, misinformation, or disinformation by cross-referencing it with other data sources across the Web. If successful, Pheme would help journalists sort through social media rumors in real-time. “Our mission is to help journalists to fact-check quicker, by looking to highlight contradictions with information published previously or other information on a similar topic,” says Kalina Bontcheva of the University of Sheffield, one of the researchers leading the project.
Some commentators feel audiences still hanker for an “Edward R. Murrow moment,” as Steve Buttry, director of student media at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, puts it, recalling the time the newsreader criticized Senator Joseph McCarthy over his anti-communist witch-hunts. “That’s impossible now because the media are different,” Buttry says. Back then, “there was no Fox News. There was not the volume of ideological blogs and Facebook pages. There’s nobody now with the stature of Murrow and the perception of neutrality to have that ‘staring into the camera’ moment and basically calling BS.”
For too long, argues Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, news organizations have relied on “the production of innocence”—casting themselves as lofty observers, above the fray. But while that has delivered impartial information, it has had negative consequences, too. “What happened over time is that producing your innocence began to interfere with another imperative in journalism, which is telling people the truth, whether they like it or not,” he says. The challenge for reporters, is that when they call out untruths, “it gives the appearance of supporting one side of the hyper-politicized debate. But it’s not support—it’s journalism.”
“We need journalists to be able to say, sometimes: ‘You believe that, but it’s not true,’” Rosen continues. “But having a press that can do that is really hard. It requires not only journalists willing to defy powerful actors, willing to risk being called one-sided, willing to discomfort their audience, but also readers, viewers, listeners who are willing to listen to that.”