Professor Chris Coughlin (JD ’90) writes on Huffington Post blog about preventing the spread of false news

Photo of Professor Christine Nero Coughlin (JD '90)

Professor Christine Nero Coughlin (JD ’90) posted the following, “Hope In 2017: Preventing The Spread Of False News And Partisan News Cycles,” on The Huffington Post blog on Jan. 17, 2017.

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America is divided. While one group of Americans celebrate President-elect Trump’s economic policies, the possible repeal of Obamacare, and unfiltered Twitter comments, the other group reports increased hate crimes, revelations about Russian cyber attacks to influence the election, and disbelief that Mexico will reimburse us to build a wall. Are we living in alternate realities? Or, are we simply on two vastly different news cycles?

Although 82 percent of Americans agree that news should be reported objectively, without slant or spin, they nevertheless choose to obtain news from questionable, online sources. According to The Pew Research Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, of the 62 percent of Americans who get their news online, 66 percent of those individuals get their news from Facebook, and 59 percent from Twitter. When we obtain news via social media, we slant our newsfeeds by “liking” Facebook pages and “retweeting” pithy comments. Therefore, relying on these sites for accurate, objective news is problematic.

Unfortunately, the anger unleashed during the election caused many Americans to rely on their disparate newsfeeds and sources, despite problems assuring accuracy. During the election, both Democrats and Republicans outlined contrasting, seemingly incompatible futures for America that guaranteed fear and uncertainty for half of the population. News coverage leading up to November 8th pandered to their political viewer base by featuring opinion pieces on how the opposing party’s platform would not only change America, but also destroy it. To decipher the myriad of reported insults and fears, Americans turned to their personally created newsfeeds for the “full story,” in such ways that radically different narratives emerged.

False or stridently partisan media narratives have increased the inherent bias that exists in every news story. By way of background, bias exists in two forms, personal and professional. Personal bias exists in everyone, including news reporters due to their differing backgrounds and life experiences. Personal bias, however, presented as facts to the public under the guise of news creates professional bias. Its presence (perceived or real) creates a lack of trust for many Americans. For example, according to Gallup, only 32 percent of Americans have either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in what the media is reporting. This marks a new low since the poll’s inception in 1972. Two groups, Republicans and individuals between the ages of 18-49 have an especially low opinion of the media; only 14 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of 18-49 year olds have either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in what the media reports. Recognizing this, some providers of fake news gear stories to these demographics. For instance, over one-hundred pro-Trump websites run out of a small town in the Republic of Macedonia featured fake news stories claiming unnamed FBI sources confirmed that Hillary Clinton would be indicted in 2017 for charges related to her email server. This story generated more than 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook and allowed the sites’ owners to profit by selling advertising space. Similarly, the far-left website The Other 98 percent featured a photo and false quote from a 1998 interview with People Magazine in which Donald Trump claimed that if he were to run for president, he would run as a Republican because “they’re the dumbest group of voters in the country.” This quote went viral on social media after November 8th despite People Magazine having no record of even interviewing him during 1998.

In today’s world, a news story’s success-even one reported in the mainstream media-is affected by how many likes, shares and retweets it receives on social media. To maximize attention to the story, and thus profits for advertising space, these false or stridently partisan news stories pander to Americans’ worst fears. For example, the website Info Wars advanced the false narrative of Hillary Clinton and John Podesta running an illegal sex trafficking ring out of a Washington, DC pizza shop’s basement. The headline PizzaGate: The Mysterious Death of a Human Trafficking Investigator confirmed readers’ worst fears about the media covering up a damaging story to support the Clinton campaign. These stories inspired Edgar Welsh, a North Carolina native, to enter the pizza shop brandishing an AR-15 assault rifle to personally investigate. Although Welsh fired several shots inside the pizza shop, thankfully no one was injured.

Historically, Americans relied on news anchors like Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner, Tom Brokaw, and Chet Huntley to separate the truth from the lies. These individuals earned trust across the political spectrum by giving both parties equal time on air, asking both sides hard hitting questions, and plainly stating whether something was their own opinion or a fact. In contrast, many of today’s media outlets often devolve from objective reporting into biased programming meant to deliver partisan viewership to advertisers. To that end, Wall Street Journal’s Editor-In-Chief Gerald Baker’s recent refusal to use the word “lie” when describing political falsehoods, and instead saying it is up to the American public to ascribe moral intent only widens the divide within the mainstream news cycle. For many Americans, the fact that they are being asked to personally determine bias and separate hard facts from opinions deepens anxiety and distrust. So, while prior to the election, Republicans feared Hillary Clinton’s vision for America; now they worry about a Democratic conspiracy to derail Trump’s presidency. Similarly, Democrats feared Trump’s harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail and believe that the increase in hate crimes serve as a synecdoche for Trump’s America.

Transitioning to a state of hope in our divided political country will not be easy, but it is one that the continuity of our democratic institutions demands. It can start by questioning, rather than automatically accepting, the news, particularly news seen on social media sites. We are more apt to accept without question stories that we agree with, especially if they are from people we trust. However, the prevalence of fake and heavily biased news necessitates more than blind acceptance. Simply asking where one found the information and looking at the underlying source can help determine whether the information is accurate. Chances are that if only snowflake.org or realtruthnews.org are reporting on the “breaking news” that “changes everything,” the story is not true or credible. If a headline or article is misleading or false, call it out by writing to the source. Further, consider whether the sources you are relying on lean progressive or conservative. If so, consider reading or viewing the same story from a source that leans the other way. Not only will you become more educated on the issues, your understanding will be more nuanced, thereby increasing your opportunity for meaningful dialogue about the actual issues that face our democracy.

If we want our democracy to thrive, we must question and demand objectivity and truth in all reporting. Although the vast majority of Americans would like journalists and media to report objectively, as long as it remains economically or socially advantageous to promote false or completely partisan news, the current practice will proliferate. Stopping the spread of fake or stridently partisan news is up to us the consumer and is one way we can unleash hope in a news cycle that has capitalized on fear.

*I’d like to thank Adam Messenlehner, my research assistant, for his significant contributions and insights with both the research and drafting of this essay.