A group of about two-dozen people – local citizens, journalism and political science graduate and undergraduate students, and East Tennessee SPJ board members – gathered for a discussion of “fake news” February 21, 2018. Conversation centered on the increasingly pervasive nature of false information described as news and of allegations of fabrication against legitimate news.
The expert panel featured WATE-TV news director Jamie Foster, WBIR-TV news director Taz Painter, WVLT-TV news director Ted Hall, Knoxville News Sentinel editor Jack McElroy, and Amanda Wintersieck, an assistant professor in UT Chattanooga’s department of political science and public service. Brandon Hollingsworth, news director for Knoxville NPR affiliate WUOT-FM, served as program moderator.
The group acknowledged social and economic pressures on traditional newsgathering operations are among the most significant challenges, with no clear solution in sight. Equally responsible for an erosion in news organization fact checking and in consumer expectations of truthfulness: 24-hour cable TV news.
“Today, we’re working with reporters straight out of college, sometimes still in college,” Hall said. “What’s wrong with the 24-hour news networks? They just make crap up. We hire kids who come in and think they’re going to do their jobs just like they’ve seen on cable news, and we have to re-train them.”
That means training in “pure news judgment, no bias,” Hall said. “We are having to educate our new hires on the need for “a base level of news judgment and coming in unbiased.”
McElroy described a radically changing environment for newspapers, including his. The change is marked by an ever-decreasing pool of staff responsible for an ever-increasing array of instant publishing platforms. Accuracy is a priority, but the burden to achieve it is one more among a growing list for “multimedia journalists” who must find, gather, write, photograph, video, edit and publish their content online and often in real time.
“We don’t have news meetings anymore, except for the print edition,” McElroy said. “At 7:15 am every weekday, there’s a conference call with managers, breaking news editors, the early morning team about what we should be chasing that day, at that point.
“We’re still very focused on local journalism, but as we’ve had to spread out across more platforms, use more tools and at the same time deal with declining revenue, it’s become necessary to streamline processes and become as cost-efficient as possible. Probably, there are some tradeoffs, but we’ve had to make them to maintain relevance.”
Wintersieck pointed out, “One of the real implications for democracy of the rise of fake news is the loss of trust.”
According to research she noted:
Contextualizing recent reports of the influence of fake news on the 2016 elections, the 50,000 fake Twitter accounts reported turns out to be 0.16 percent of all Twitter users. Their 2 million tweets achieved less than a 0.5 percent of impressions.
“So they were following each other and retweeting each other,” Wintersieck said. “Turns out it wasn’t that much that they influenced votes.”
Wintersieck cited other research that indicated:
Trump supporters are more likely to visit “fake news” websites. Visitors to those sites are more likely strong partisans already likely to vote Trump and consuming heavy conservative news diets.
“They are seeking out information that is consistent with their beliefs and affirms their choices.”
As a guest at the program, Don Lindsey, a former journalist and now-retired communication official for AAA of East Tennessee, said the evolution and metamorphosis in news organizations and news consumer preferences happening before our eyes makes the future harder than ever to predict.
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