Fake news, politics and reporting in the age of Trump

By Alison Kuznitz, Penn State University

Though fake news has become a “weapon” increasingly waged against the mainstream media, journalists likewise have an arsenal of tools to curb eroding trust among readers.

For Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief of USA TODAY, the solution is “to get up every morning and do our jobs as well as we can and as smart as we can.”

“There’s a higher purpose to journalism, and this is a moment when journalists need to step up,” Page said.

She was among four panelists who spoke as part of “Fake news, politics and reporting in the age of Trump,” a leadership development session hosted Monday afternoon during the 2017 News Leadership conference.

While the current relationship between President Donald Trump and the press may seem adversarial, panelists argued tensions have also run high in previous administrations.

“What’s new is the resurgence of fact-based reporting,” said Brian Carovillano, the vice president and managing editor of The Associated Press. “The confrontation vibe has existed in the past, and in fact is necessary in some ways for journalists to do their jobs.”

Yet, Page said Trump’s followers — many of whom openly distrust the news media — represent a “corrosive threat” to democracy.

The panel discussion clarified the fundamental objectives that guide reporters, alongside obstacles that may hinder their credibility in the eyes of the public.

“Our role is to present truly factual, simple, easy-to-understand information,” said Aaron Sharockman, a panelist and the executive director of PolitiFact. “We’re looking for the truth. We’ll go wherever the truth is.”

Sometimes, the panelists said, truth can be a matter of sifting through Trump’s Twitter feed, providing much-needed context in the midst of social media frenzies. Otherwise, journalists may end up “ahead of their skis” and fail to serve the public interest, panelist Liz Spayd argued.

“I very much believe in hard investigative stories that aren’t just reporting what we see,” said Spayd, a Facebook consultant and former public editor of The New York Times. “We ought to be doing more reporting and strong analysis.”

Once anonymous sources are factored into the reporting equation, transparency must also be a staple ingredient in order to maintain trust. Spayd said all readers should understand why an unnamed source is privy to certain information — and underlying motives that could alter a quote’s meaning.

Carovillano agreed that utilizing anonymous source is an inevitable practice, albeit one that should not be taken lightly.

“Intellectually, every editor and every journalist knows that when a story is based on an anonymous source, it already has a little bit less credibility for the audience than a story that has a named source who’s willing to go on the record,” he said.

Moving forward, the media should be wary of “taking the bait,” whether that comes from listening to questionable sources or “playing the game” with Trump. Fake news, Sharockman said, has always persisted in many forms, including email chains.

In its current medium, the stakes are just higher.

“It is different to have the president describing general media as fake news,” he said.

Alison Kuznitz is a junior at Penn State University.

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