The information age has created a totally new landscape of news sources. The shift from traditional print journalism to radio, TV and digital is dramatic and concerning. A decade ago consumers relied on newspapers as their main news source. Today according to Pew Research Center on Journalism and the Media, newspapers now rank last behind digital, radio and TV as the publics’ favorite choices as their news sources. As newspapers have been losing revenue, downsizing and experiencing falling circulation, they have been forced to cut their staffs. Between 1994 and 2014 newsroom employment dropped by 39%. The number of daily newspapers has decreased by nearly 10% since 2004. According to a June 2014 Cityview article, the Des Moines Register’s daily circulation dropped 32% in the last 5 years and the Sunday Register dropped 28% over the same period.
This is so concerning because newspapers have been the most reliable sources for in-depth investigative journalism. They have been one of the most reliable sources for fact based journalism. That loss has been replaced by many sources lacking the investigative power to thoroughly pursue in-depth reporting.
As newspapers have declined, the vacuum has been filled by a variety of news sources, many of which are either extremely ideological, engage in exaggeration and/or promote fake news.
The power of talk radio to drive the far-right-agenda is undeniable as a force in Iowa and the nation. Blog for Iowa published an article last week outlining the amount of talk radio propaganda heard in Iowa. They said, “In Iowa, at least 700 hours a week of right-wing propaganda is being broadcast on the AM dial.” That is a powerful voice heard by working class and rural voters.
According to another Pew Research Survey, TV news sources are sharply divided by ideology. FOX news is the overwhelming preferred choice of 47% of conservatives. Liberals are much more varied in their news sources, choosing from CNN-15%, NPR-13%, MSNBC-12% and the New York Times-10% (print). More importantly conservatives trust FOX news by a whopping 88%. Liberals trust a much broader spectrum of news sources. The fact that conservatives (Republicans) depend on one TV news source clearly limits their ability to question the accuracy of competing news stories.
The 2016 election revealed the power and proliferation of fake news sources. The most visible was the fake pizzagate conspiracy story claiming Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager were running a child sex ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. This ended with a North Carolina man walking into Comet Ping Pong Pizza carrying an assault rifle allegedly to break up the sex ring. The DC police called the event a “a fictitious online conspiracy theory” gone viral. It originally began from a Wikileaks release of Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta’s emails. A simple reference to this pizza restaurant morphed into a wildly crazy child sex-ring-conspiracy theory.
Politfact traced the original source to a white supremist twitter account that posted October 30th 2016 claiming evidence of the pizza sex-ring. The fake story spread for weeks ending with the gunman appearing at the pizza place on December 3rd. The owner of the pizza venue was quoted after the shooter showed up at his restaurant, “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.”
This new world of fake news is going to require everyone to be their own fact checker. Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, prepared a list of fake news sites and suggestions to identify the reliability of news sources. Her short list warns of these characteristics that suggest it’s an unreliable or fake source. Websites that end in “lo” like “Newslo”; sites that end in “co” as in “.com.co”; and sites written in all caps are all suspect. In addition, she warns that even legitimate sites may allow bloggers to post under their banner but may just be expressing opinions without sufficient fact checking. One other suggestion she offers is to go to the “about us” heading on the website and check Snopes or Wikipedia for additional information about the site.
The traditional mainstream media has been under withering attacks from the Republican Party for years. These assaults escalated during the Trump campaign with his direct condemnation of the media at nearly every campaign event. Simultaneously, the growth of fake news sites and Trump’s reckless disregard for facts requires everyone to become better fact checkers.
by Rick Smith