By Nicholas Van der Meer, student news writer
CAMPBELLSVILLE, Ky. – “Fake news has been around since news became a concept.”
That is how Al Cross, professor at the School of Journalism of the University of Kentucky and a former political reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, opened Campbellsville University’s recent “Fake News” Forum.
The forum was organized by Stan McKinney, associate professor of journalism and lead professor of mass communication at Campbellsville University. Cross and four other industry professionals were invited to speak to the public and students on “fake news” and their take on its effect on modern society.
Cross was joined by Jeff Moreland, publisher for the Central Kentucky News-Journal; Bill Sanders, program director for WGRK-FM, K Country 105.7, Campbellsville; Richard Nelson of the Commonwealth Policy Center; and Ryan Craig, owner of the Todd County Standard, adviser to the Kentucky Kernel at the University of Kentucky and a former president of the Kentucky Press Association.
Cross opened the forum with an overview of the history of the news industry, with examples of some historical instances of fake news. “…our founding fathers weren’t above using fake news to advance their cause,” Cross said. “The most significant example of fabrication, before the modern era, may have been the report, or reports, by competing newspaper chains that blamed Spain for the sinking of the battleship Maine in Nevada harbor. There was backlash to this, and people demanded better.”
Examples such as this helped his summary of the early developments of the industry give context to the rest of the forum.
Cross’ history lesson presented evidence to help fight the idea of a primarily partisan news industry.
As he put it, “publishers had a stronger commercial incentive for accuracy and fairness. Good journalism became good business.”
Despite this, Cross also at least partially blamed the modern-day explosion of media sources as a cause of the current trend of news that focuses on confirming a viewer’s beliefs, rather than run counter.
Cross presented data on the state of the public’s views on the legitimacy of major news media.
Quoting a poll from the News Media Alliance, he said only 40 percent of Americans in the last 10 years found major media capable of discerning fact from fiction.
Cross said social media is a major cause of this issue.
Due to few existing standards, sites like Facebook allow groups to readily post what Cross refers to as deep fakes. These posts are stories deliberately built to push an agenda.
He showed that many organizations can use social media to do so without consequences.
Nelson followed Cross with his thoughts on fake news and media bias. As he put it, one of the biggest challenges facing modern news outlets is an “information glut” with “upwards of 70 percent of Americans getting some of their news from Facebook.”
Nelson believes the growing competition between traditional and online outlets is a large contribution to the rise of fake news.
“That contributes to the headlines needing to be attention-grabbing,” Nelson said.
“Most of the headlines in mainstream newspapers weren’t competing with outlandish headlines.”
“Biased reporting has driven news consumers to other sources.”
Nelson cited coverage of the Kavanaugh hearings as an example. NBC and CNN both cited anonymous sources, showcasing a mainstream example of unverifiable sources.
Because of events like this, Nelson believes “the credibility of mainstream news outlets has taken a hit.”
Nelson also said poor news literacy is a contributing factor to the rise of fake news.
“We, as citizens, need to be better news consumers,” Nelson said. “Truthful, factual information is so important to a free people, it’s important to our republic. We should be for truthful news.”
Nelson referred to unimportant and meaningless news as “the digital equivalent of empty carbs.”
Nelson capped off his talk with a 2018 survey from Monmouth University in New Jersey.
The survey reported that 77 percent of Americans believe that traditional media outlets report fake news.
Forty-two percent believe that major news outlets deliberately misinform the public to push a political agenda.
Nelson said this is indicative of the level of distrust the public has for media outlets. The problem is less an abundance of fake news, and more that more and more people are seeing fake news where it isn’t.
Nelson suggested that you “find journalists that you trust. Plug into those.”
Moreland followed with his perspective as a local news outlet.
Using local elections as an example, he said, “We have to be careful in the newspaper when we write stories, especially if it involves a person who is a candidate, to not be accused of having a slant.”
His experiences demonstrate the struggle smaller media outlets deal with in order to maintain integrity.
“We actually have to go out and meet our audience,” Moreland said.
“I think a lot of the times with these larger media outlets, you could be sitting by that person in a restaurant and you don’t even know that this is the guy that wrote this scandalous story. With us, if we’re walking through a grocery store, if we’ve written something that upsets you and really made you mad, we’ve got to look you in the eye and deal with you. That puts a little bit more responsibility on our end.”
Sanders said irresponsible reporting is one of the largest contributors to “fake news.” He described it as chasing sensationalism and being first. He views this desire as a large factor in reporting inaccuracies.
Sanders was adamant about accuracy in reporting.
“If you can’t verify it, you don’t have a story,” Sanders said. “Responsible journalism is so much more important than being right, or first, or getting ratings.”
Sanders also stressed the responsibility of the listener. On social media, he said, “You cannot trust the media. Facebook is not news.”
Sanders advised the audience to consider the sources of the story, objectives of the writer and other options for a story.
“Your responsibility: look it up,” Sanders said.
“You can’t trust what somebody says and take it at face value. Take the time to research, look it up.”
Craig finished the panel with his thoughts on fake news and social media.
“You actually know there’s fake news out there, there’s falsehoods out there, but yet they’re more and more difficult to spot.”
He said social media is a major part of the problem.
“You choose your Facebook feed to be the cesspool it is,” Craig said. “You have been given the choice, when you have social media, to pick and choose what you want to see. You have to go outside of that to find the truth.”
The panelists closed off the forum with answering questions from the crowd. On a question regarding misinformation, Craig said, “What we need, as a society, is better education about how we recognize what is news and what is not news. It will take a reshaping on how society views truth. There will have to be a change, not only in the culture of how we access media, but in the change in how we recognize what really is the truth and what isn’t.”
Sanders took the lead on a question regarding trusting the story and sources. Again, he stressed the importance of verification.
“You have to work it. You’re committing journalism. You’re committing yourself to it. So you have to be able to say ‘I’m going to make the effort to make the effort to make the contacts.’”
Cross said, “You have to consider the longstanding reputation of the source.”
Among the last questions was a direct questioning of the panelist by a man from the audience regarding major news outlets.
The man, using examples of previous election coverage, attempted to claim that major news outlets were biased, which Cross disagreed with.
When asking Nelson about examples of reliable news outlets, he took Nelson’s lack of an instant response as proof for his argument.
Nelson then quickly named sources he believes are reliable.
Cross used this question to say, “If there is one major fault of modern journalism, it is that it does a poor job of drawing the line between fact and fiction.”
In response to a question regarding the public’s supposed desire for fake news, Nelson said, “People want to be in the know, and they want to be the first one to tell others.”
“People want to be able to affirm that what they thought was right,” Sanders said.
“We live in an era today where people are out for confirmation, rather than information,” Cross said.
The forum closed with a question about fair and balanced reporting.
On this, Cross said, “There’s something to that. I think that is what people want. I think journalism has done a bad job of defending its brand. We do a bad job of explaining to people how we do our jobs.”
McKinney said, “I think some good information came out of the forum. I think we have to start somewhere with this.
“I’ve always believed the media does not do a very good job of explaining itself. This is a small step. Truth has become the victim here.”
“All of us as journalists have to do a better job,” McKinney said, “and as consumers of information we have to consider the accuracy of our sources.
“All of us must seek the truth.”
Among the students who attended the forum, Koral Sugiyama, a senior at Campbellsville University, said, “The forum piqued my interest because it wasn’t too clear to me what fake news really was.
“I’ve been off social media for about two years and hardly tuned into the news, so anything political went right past me. The only exposure I got was if one of my peers mentioned something that I wasn’t fully wrapping my head around what was going on.
“So, the forum was a great opportunity to clear that all up.
“I especially appreciated how many people from different backgrounds came to speak.”
Campbellsville University is a widely-acclaimed Kentucky-based Christian university with more than 13,000 students offering more than 90 programs of study including Ph.D., master, baccalaureate, associate, pre-professional and certification programs. The university has off-campus centers in Kentucky cities Louisville, Harrodsburg, Somerset, Hodgenville and Liberty with Kentucky instructional sites in Elizabethtown, Owensboro and Summersville, and nationally in Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, Jacksonville, Fla. and Chicago. The university also has a full complement of online programs. The website for complete information is campbellsville.edu.