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‘Just the Facts’ Harder to Find in Today’s Media Landscape


There has been a lot of news in the news lately about fake news. While fake news on the internet is nothing new, the role and the degree to which it may be playing in our decision making has taken on new significance. A recent article in Buzzfeed concluded that fake election news stories from “hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs” generated more engagement than top stories from major news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News and others. Tech companies including Google and Facebook have vowed to reign in such sites since more of us are seeing this fake news integrated into our regular newsfeeds.

All of this comes amidst changing perceptions about the role of media in society, and indeed, even the veracity of news organizations. Let’s start first with where people get their news. A study by the Pew Research Center indicates that older adults still often get news on TV (72% for those 50-64, 85% of those 65+) with younger adults turning more often to online platforms.  Indeed, a majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media (not exclusively) and 18% do so often.

Then, consider Americans’ growing distrust in media in general. Four in 10 Americans say they have even a “fair amount” of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly, according to the latest Gallup poll. Trust in media is also significantly lower among the 18 to 49 age group at about 36%.

But, then there is also this: the majority of U.S. adults think the news media should not add interpretation to the facts.  A recent Pew Research Center study found that 59% of adults believe the media should present the facts without interpretation. While the public said it wants the news media to present “just the facts”, they may not agree on what those facts are.  This perception gap became even more pronounced during the recent election and among political parties. One thing the public does approve of is fact checking.  The vast majority of registered voters say that fact checking is a responsibility of the news media. Even those who oppose the interpretation of facts generally favor the fact checking role of the news media. A total of 81% of U.S. adults who prefer facts without interpretation think fact checking is a media responsibility. But, if we don’t trust the media, how do we have faith that the facts they are checking are accurate?

In this confusing jumble of seemingly contradictory views about the media, what’s a news consumer to do? This is an even more important question in light of a recent study done by the Stanford History Education Group that found middle, high school and college students were “easily duped” when it comes to evaluating information that flows through their social media channels.

With the fragmentation of media, we are in danger of only reading/listening/paying attention to news that reinforces our own point of view.This giant echo chamber doesn’t broaden our viewpoints or help us understand the world better – something that good reporting was always assumed to do.

One CNET news editor had some basic advice for becoming a more discerning news consumer: use common sense.  “..If a story serves only to reinforce your beliefs, it’s best to be extra skeptical before sharing it.”

Here are some other tips offered by CNET to become a more astute news consumer:

Find the original source of information:  The quotes in a story might be correct, but taken out of context, could add a whole different meaning to a story.

Question odd urls: If a story links to a website with a strange type of url that you have never seen, it’s probably fake.

Not every picture tells a truthful story: Pictures can be cropped, clipped or photoshopped so just because a story has a photo doesn’t mean it’s true.

In the end, it’s up to all of us to be responsible consumers of news. Broaden the outlets where you go to find stories, seek out different points of view and be a skeptical news consumer. By setting high standards, expecting the truth and expanding our horizons, we may get closer to “just the facts”.

Claudia Keith is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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