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MADISONVILLE, Ky. (8/3/18) — Fake news is nothing new. Historians say it has been around for centuries. Today’s challenge is much the same as it has always been — distinguishing fact from fallacy. The internet and 24-hour cable news, however, have made it easier and quicker to spin a story to a worldwide audience.

A panel of journalism experts met Thursday to discuss the topic, “Fighting Fake News and other Challenges to Journalism and Democracy,” sponsored by Madisonville attorney Will Cox.

Al Cross, professor of journalism and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, served as moderator during the discussion at Madisonville Community College.

The strategic plan of the institute is to hold more forums on issues, particularly fake news, Cross said.

“America’s first newspaper in 1690 was shut down for printing fabrications — fake news,” Cross said. “But, there was a growing hunger in society (Europe) for verifying facts. And, that was part of the Enlightenment — the age of reason — in the 1700s.”

Cross said the Founding Fathers were not above using fake news as the means to an end. During the Revolution, newspapers held partisanship, and were essentially financed by political parties. Sensationalism rose from there. Public backlash on fabricated news helped spawn the notion of journalism schools.

Cross explained the schools and Associated Press helped set the standards/code of ethics for journalism. When newspapers consolidated, most towns ended up with one newspaper and publishers had a stronger commercial incentive for accuracy.

“Good journalism remained good business,” he said.  And then, technology and politics generated partisan news networks on cable television, saying, “Those were really big changes.”

The rise of internet use in the mid-1990s and the birth of social media was the biggest change, Cross said, noting it was the climax of disintermediation, leaving the door open for anyone to become a publisher without any regard for accuracy or fairness. Its popularity has led to a 40 percent reduction in employment at newspapers.

The three types of media Cross identified were news media, which practices verification and attributes where the information comes from — real journalism that has ethical standards. Social media, which has very little filtering or verification, and finally, strategic media, which has an agenda to sell goods or services and philosophies including a political agenda in an effort to masquerade as a newspaper.

Fake news reports have caused damage to reputations and diminished trust, Cross said. The effect on the 2016 election is still being studied. Local news media scores better on trust than national news media, according to national studies. Buzz Feed reported the top 20 fake stories received more engagement than 19 major media outlets in 2016, and the jury is still out on whether unverified news articles affected the election. Russia’s alleged involvement would be hard to prove at this point, he added.

Cross set the landscape asking panelists what journalists could do to shed light on the topic of fake news, and the floor was open to a few questions from a small audience afterward.

Jennifer P. Brown, co-chair for the UK Institute and former editor of the Kentucky New Era, explained one way to verify the truth is to look for a journalist’s contact information or byline for verification and search for stories on the same topic in the region to see what other news outlets are reporting. Doing so could lead people to become better news consumers.

She also mentioned reporters do sometimes fall short, but that’s not fake news. She suggested the following sources to check validity of reports:

“You can interact with journalists in smaller markets,” she said, adding that reporters are pretty cool people. 

Brown believes there is too much noise from the extreme left and the extreme right, and moderates are the silent majority, who utilize multiple sources including online sources, radio and networks like KET to get their news.

Richard Nelson, Commonwealth Policy Center director, whose articles have appeared in several news media, also weighed in on the discussion at MCC Thursday night.

He suggests it is important to be informed citizens due to the bias that exists in media today including “so much click bait” that has driven people to seek other news sources.

“Cultivate an appetite for things that are true,” he said. “That might require some effort on our part. I think it is important to call out blatant information on social media.”

Nelson also stated that journalists should not identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

The Messenger Editor Mike Alexieff said, “We’re your local newspaper,” adding their goal is to offer fair and accurate local news. “We don’t have agendas.”

The editor explained the news staff has shrunk over the years, but it is no less trustworthy in its reporting. He believes any news outside of print media is not trustworthy, especially news that appears on Facebook.

“Facebook is a terrible place to get news,” Alexieff said. “You’ve all seen those memes.”

Online SurfKY News Group owner Ron Sanders also offered his viewpoint. He believes some newspapers hold a political bias. He defends clean coal and its minimal impact on the environment regardless of some of the biased media reports.

“I don’t see much fake news locally,” Sanders said. “Fake news is not new — propaganda still goes on … we try to maintain high standards.”

Sanders believes people should research facts that directly affect their lives in making important decisions. He realizes lack of ethics is an issue in today’s news reporting, and editorials/opinion columns vary with each writer.

The panelists agreed that freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, allows journalists to work without interference from the government regardless of whether anyone agrees. And, journalism, despite the political atmosphere, lives on.

Doreen Dennis
SurfKY News Director
Region 2
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