How do Americans view ‘fake news’ today?

Nation

President Donald Trump has tweeted about “fake news” repeatedly during his first year in office. Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post, and Craig Silverman, a media editor for BuzzFeed News, talk to Judy Woodruff about how Americans view the media in a climate of distrust.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    In President Trump's first year in office, he tweeted about fake news and fake media 174 times. That is an average of once every two days.

    Over the weekend, he said he uses social media because — quote — "It is the only way to fight a very dishonest and unfair press, now often referred to as fake news media. Phony and nonexistent sources are being used more often than ever" — end quote.

    Well, we explore how many American people view the role of the press and how the term fake news has been co-opted and even weaponized, you might say, by politicians, with Margaret Sullivan. She's media columnist for The Washington Post. And with Craig Silverman. He's the media editor for BuzzFeed News.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Margaret, I'm going the start with you. You set out to get a sense of what people think about the media. You went back to the place where you grew up, Western New York state, and you talked to people. Tell us a little bit about what you found.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Well, Judy, the reason I did that was because I had heard such dramatically different things from readers at The Post and other people, whether it was on social media or in e-mails, some of it very, very critical, some of it very abusive.

    And a reader actually wrote to me and said, you need to get out into the — get out of that Washington, D.C., bubble and go out into, you know, sort of regular America or the Rust Belt or the Heartland. And I decided that would be a good idea to actually spend some time and talk to people about their level of trust in the media and how they're informed and whether they believe it, or whether, like one poll has it, that people, some large number of people, think that the news media actually makes things up about the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you found some reassuring responses, but also some pretty disturbing ones.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    I did.

    I mean, I found that people in general do think they have access to credible news and credible information, but they have their complaints about the news media, too, particularly the blending of news and opinion and the fact that there's a kind of — they see a kind of a pettiness or a snarkiness or kind of an above-it-all arrogance in the news media that they don't feel speaks to them very well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They were commenting, I think, among other things, about cable news commentators.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just the reporting that they get on their Facebook feeds, for example.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

     Exactly.

    I mean, people get their news in all kinds of different ways. And that's one of the problems. When we say the news media or when we poll people about the news media, what are we actually asking them about? Are we asking them about Facebook or FOX News or The New York Times or something else?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed, you have done a lot of thinking over the last several years, and writing about fake news.

    You use the term a lot. What have you seen? We quoted President Trump and his — he's using that term again, but what do you see when you — today, compared the what you originally thought when you started using the term a few years ago fake news? How do you see the meaning of the term and what the distinctions are?

  • Craig Silverman:

    Originally, for me, it was a term used to describe a very specific type of completely false, deceptive content that was spreading primarily on Facebook by people who wanted to earn money from the traffic that went back to their Web site that had the fake story.

    And so this was a specific kind of actor, a malicious actor out there, who was doing it for money. And yet now, here we are, roughly a year past the election or so, and the term has really been, I think, co-opted. And it's almost like a jujitsu move that Donald Trump has done where people were saying fake news was one of the things that kind of got him elected, and maybe people had been tricked by these stories.

    And he felt like that undermined the legitimacy of his election, so he decided to take the term and sort of make it in his own image. And so he uses it today to criticize reporting that he doesn't like, to criticize mostly mainstream outlets that he thinks are too hard on him.

    And I think, frankly, at this point, the term in some ways has become almost meaningless, or at the very least it means whatever your side thinks it does. And so it's become very politicized.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there is no question that one example of fake news, or stories that are deliberately put out there purposely, lies, information that people know is not true.

    We have one example. And I think you referred to this in your writing. It showed up as a tweet last year by man named David Clarke quoting Hillary Clinton, and here it is now.

    It's just — it's just — it's clearly made up. There's no truth to it, and yet it got an enormous amount of follow — pickup.

  • Craig Silverman:

    Yes.

    And, you know, there's that quote, which is Hillary Clinton supposedly saying that Democratic voters are stupid, and there was also a completely fake quote attributed to Trump saying that Republicans were stupid.

    And so you see this coming, frankly, from all sides. And in the case of Clarke, you have somebody who is a pretty prominent Trump supporter, someone who at one point was expected to maybe get a job in the administration, and he's out there pushing completely fake information.

    And in the context that he shared that completely false quote, he was also complaining and calling real reporting fake news. So, he's branding something that's completely fake as real and actual reporting as fake news, and that kind of typifies some of the stuff we see today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret, I want to come back to the people you talked to in the Buffalo area.

    What did they say the news media needs to do to begin to regain their trust in this world where fake news, that term is thrown around all the time?

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Well, they would like to see more substance and less superficiality. They would like to see the separation of news and opinion. They would like to see less snarkiness and more of a kind of a respectful attitude.

    And while they might not put it just this way, they'd like the see more transparency. They'd like to understand what goes on behind the curtain and sort of how the sausage is made, which is something that we have never really wanted to show.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    But I think, these days, we have to do that, and we have to own up to our mistakes in a much more transparent way, so that people can understand how we do our job and that we're trying to do it as best we can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Craig Silverman, are those the kinds of things that you think could begin to earn and to regain the trust of the American people?

  • Craig Silverman:

    I think the last point is one that's particularly important right now when it comes to the inevitable mistakes that journalists acting in good faith will make.

    You know, journalism is not a perfect exercise. It's a human endeavor, so we will make mistakes. But if you're not willing to be honest about it and transparent about it, then I think the people who are trying to brand real journalism as fake news are given a leg up, because they can say, see, they made this mistake and they won't say anything about it.

    So, I think that's really, really important. And to Margaret's point about helping people understand the process of journalism, I do think that's important. People consume a lot of journalism, but they don't necessarily have an understanding of how it's produced.

    And for a long time, we took it for granted that maybe people trusted us and assumed we acted in good faith. And I think we have to demonstrate a lot more and be a lot more transparent. And, sometimes, that means really making a hard admission about something where we fell short.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think, Margaret, that this also is going to involve more work on the part of the news media?

    Frankly, I feel that, generally, reporters work pretty hard. But in order to distinguish between information that we know we can back up and information that is just out there, that is so easy to write a report or repeat, whether we back it up or not.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Well, we have to do a kind of — I don't know whether it's harder, but we have to do a different kind of work, which now has to do a lot about with fact-checking and with presenting.

    When an interviewer, whether it's the president or someone else, says something that we know not to be the case, we have to be ready to counter it in real time and very clearly with credible and verifiable fact.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, for example, Craig Silverman, today, the president tweeted that this was the safest year ever in American aviation because there were no deaths from commercial aircraft crashes.

    In fact, this has been the case for the last number of years.

  • Craig Silverman:

    Yes, and he took credit for it.

    And what is interesting about a tweet like that, where, you know, what he's saying is accurate, but the piece that a lot of people seized upon in the media was him sort of taking credit for this thing, I have been really tough on the airlines and I have really wanted to make this happen.

    And so what happens inevitably is, given the context of saying, you know what, nothing actually has been different in this area under Trump, I think a lot of his supporters will look at that and say, oh, you're taking a cheap shot.

    And so it's an important piece of context, but it's a piece of context in a highly polarized environment that is actually going to feed some of the perceptions people already have of media. And so there's some times where you're doing your job, and you're correct in doing it, but inevitably in this environment it's still going to be interpreted in certain ways.

    And I think journalists have to kind of accept that and think about, well, what are other ways for me to demonstrate my credibility?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, we are in a new time, and we just have to keep working hard at this every single day.

    Margaret Sullivan, Craig Silverman, thank you both.

  • Margaret Sullivan:

    Thank you, Judy.

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How do Americans view ‘fake news’ today? first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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