BLOG: Follow The Facts, Not The Fakes

The term “fake news” is generally understood to be bogus clickbait planted online for financial or political gain. Or so we thought.

The Trump administration earlier this year declared that any news coverage critical of the president would be labeled “fake news.” That’s without regard to the factual accuracy of an offending story. Since then use of the term has metastasized and applied to anything that doesn’t match someone’s expectations of what the story should be.

Snow Job?

It’s even been applied to the weather forecast. The National Weather Service (NWS) came under criticism for its forecasts ahead of an East Coast blizzard in mid-March. It was a substantial storm with heavy wet snow, high winds, coastal flooding and power outages.

Forecasters repeatedly stated that they were uncertain where the divide between rain, ice and snow would be. But because of the chance of icing or very heavy snowfall in urban areas the NWS took a cautious approach and stuck with the higher amounts. Accumulations turned out to be much lower than expected in the Boston, New York and Washington metro areas where some people later claimed the forecasts were hyped or manipulated as “fake news.”

A week after the storm the weather service office in Boston took the extraordinary step of releasing a statement defending its professionalism and integrity and denying it manipulated the forecast.

Follow The Facts

News users can take steps to gain more control of determining what’s real, what’s made up and what’s merely a difference in opinion. We often encourage news users to “be your own editor” by crosschecking stories in different sources, investigating questions they have about news stories and challenging their own assumptions. All of those things are included in an expression reporters use, namely, “follow the facts.”

You can do that by seeking varied and reliable news sources. Sometimes the facts may make you feel uncomfortable, anxious or in an outright state of denial. Some of them may even feel damaging or challenging to your political choices and beliefs. But you can choose to follow those facts to wherever they lead — good, bad or otherwise.

Active vs. Reactive

Making that choice comes more from a mindset than a set of steps. It involves an attitude of actively seeking out news vs. passively receiving information and reacting.

A passive consumer thinks of it as “the media said this,” or, “this official said that,” and then merely deciding whether the information is true or false based on how it affects them. An active consumer’s evaluation would be something along the lines of, “I read this story and checked it against reliable competing sources. The main facts are consistent but there are different takes on aspects of the story. I still have questions and have to look for more or updated info.”

Red Wine, Bacon,…

An example of an active approach is when we hear reports of what foods are supposed to be either good or bad for us. Some may hear it passively as instruction – eat this/don’t eat that – then decide if they want to believe it or not. An active news user tries instead to think of it not as true or false but as new information they need to investigate further, maybe ask their doctor about, then figure out if or how to use it.

…Russia and…

Another example is the continuing investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. You may remember our advice from earlier podcasts (Episode 7 – The Russia-Trump Story – Wait For It! and Episode 13- The Trump Dossier). We often say “wait for it” because the story is going to take time to develop and reach some resolution. Even after a lot of coverage so far it’s way too soon to draw any conclusions one way or the other.

…the Snow

The NWS widely released information showing the uncertainty in the blizzard forecast. But if we only saw the eye-catching snowfall estimates on TV we would have been surprised at the outcome. The next step would be to ask, “wait a minute, what happened?” That would lead us to information we may have missed that would explain the discrepancy.

An active approach takes a little more effort but it puts us as news users in control. We get to decide whether to follow the facts or be “faked” away from them.

Podcast Episode 23: Active or Reactive?

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“Fake news” used to mean phony stories planted online for financial or political gain. But lately the label’s being attached to factual info that doesn’t support someone’s beliefs expectations or goals, even including the weather. How do news users know what to believe?

BLOG: The 30,000-Foot View Of How We Got Here

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1787

You don’t have to be a critic of the news media to bemoan the decline in breadth and quality of news reporting in recent years. But unless you understand how and why the news business got to this point you’re mainly just bitching. Sure, news organizations have to figure out their challenges. But each of us has a role to play as well. That begins with understanding how we – you, us, the news media – got here in the first place. That can help us figure out we can get where we need and want to be.

You probably have heard the basics before – declining ad revenues, social media, shifting demographics, etc., etc. But it began before Facebook and other social media even started.

Flip It Upside Down

We all know that the internet fundamentally changed how information is distributed and shared. But it also profoundly changed how we thought about and consumed information, including the news.

The internet was “democratizing” information bringing news and factual content to many more people far more rapidly than the old circulation methods. It would be also be free or cheap so the public could be more readily and better informed. That was the idea anyway.

But a few people, including Kate Watts1 at Chime Communications (my former employer) in London, saw something bigger happening. In 2003 Watts published a paper1 that foresaw nothing short of a complete flipping of how everyone receives and processes information.

Deference vs. Reference

Watts wrote that through most of modern history, information flowed from authoritative sources to the man on the street, as from the top of a pyramid to its base. In this “Age of Deference,” the public trusted distant government and other authoritative sources more than say, their next-door neighbors, co-workers or strangers. National mass market broadcast networks and publications also were a credible unifying force that created shared experiences and a baseline of facts. Forces including the Vietnam War, the social unrest of the 60s and the Watergate scandal started the shift, but the internet really propelled it.

Now in the “Age of Reference” the pyramid is flipped. In a form of information populism, we’re far more likely to seek out and believe people closer and similar to ourselves. We downplay or discredit information that challenges what we believe we know. With less trust in traditional news sources the unifying force of national media declines as we create or find many more sources to replace them. Our measure of quality and credibility tends to have more to do with what supports our worldviews vs. how the world may actually be.

Facebook was founded in 2004 and rapidly became a driver of this change. Blogs, podcast and the social media also joined this vicious circle. Not only did media outlets experience a drop in ad revenues, the “free” internet model increasingly eroded news media revenue. News organizations were very slow to adapt and had to cut staff and distribution. The quality, depth and reach of the product suffered. Readers continued to bail. And yes, the media, like the rest of us, make mistakes.

OK, So Now What?

New organizations are still adapting. So are we as news users. If we can better understand how all of us got to this point we can start to make some informed choices. That includes recognizing how our use of social media affects us – if we allow it too. It means being willing to deliberately break out of our news bubbles and to seek out more and different reliable news sources that may or may not agree with our views. It means stepping away the facile partisan labels of “conservative” or “liberal” and trying to obtain as much factual information as possible. Finally, it means supporting the news sources we use through subscriptions, direct access to their sites to bypass the social media siphoning of ad revenue and direct, constructive questions and feedback.

There are no simple solutions. But each of us can go well beyond bitching and engaging with information beyond “likes” or “shares.”

Our democracy depends on it.

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1The power of influence in the age of reference

Kate Watts, Admap, September 2003, Issue 442, pp. 31-34

Podcast Episode 17: Finding The Facts

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Founding Father John Adams famously called facts “stubborn things” that exist and persist regardless of whatever we choose to believe. In the face of fake news and “alternative facts,” we offer tips to help you be as stubborn as the facts in your efforts to stay informed.