Fake news has direct impact on real media, new research finds

By Michelle Amazeen | BU College of Communication

It goes without question that Donald Trump is an expert at publicity. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, he explained how an article in the New York Times creates much more value for one of his real estate projects than if he bought a full-page ad. “If the New York Times writes even a moderately positive one-column story about one of my deals,” he wrote, “it doesn’t cost me anything, and it’s worth a lot more than [the] $40,000 [cost of an ad]…” The value is in the attention generated. Trump understands the power of media in influencing audiences.

This function of the media that Trump understands so well is what mass communication scholars refer to as the “agenda-setting” effect of media. This area of research has demonstrated how news media make certain topics or attributes top-of-mind among audiences. If news coverage has been dominated by the economy, then citizens are more likely to think the economy is an important issue facing society today, as well. The ability of news media to influence what we think about is why many researchers like me are concerned about the growing prevalence of “fake news.”

Since the 2016 elections in the U.S., fake news has generated a great deal of media attention — particularly on how it spreads through social media. To be clear, the term “fake news” has been used and misused so often that its meaning has become blurred, but what we mean by fake news is information that is fabricated — in whole or in part — with an intent to deceive, particularly for financial gain. A new study I published in New Media & Society with colleagues Chris Vargo from the University of Colorado Boulder and Lei Guo from Boston University investigates the relationship of fake news to online news organizations. As shown in the following chart, the number of news stories from fake news websites has grown tremendously over a three-year period between 2014 and 2016.

Figure 1. The number of fake news stories and fact-checking articles by month (2014–2016).

One of our goals in conducting this study was to determine whether fake news disrupts the ways real news organizations report. The short answer is: it does. We found that fake news stories were influential across this three-year period on the topic of international relations. In other words, whenever fake news fabricated stories about international relations, the news media would react in five or fewer days.

What we didn’t measure is whether the news organizations repeated or refuted the stories from the fake news sites. Anecdotally, we know it’s both. But because media attention was given to fake news stories, other news topics were not covered. After all, journalists only have so many hours in a day. We also found that between 2015 and 2016, fake news set the agenda of all online media on the topics of the economy and religion.

We studied whether certain types of news media were more responsive to fake news stories or even influenced what fake news sites covered. We found that online partisan news media sites (such as National Review or Vox) had reciprocal relationships with fake news media. On the one hand, fake news sites were influenced by the stories covered in partisan news media, especially on the topics of the economy, education, the environment, international relations, religion, taxes, and unemployment. On the other hand, online partisan media were responsive to the type of stories covered by fake news sites, especially in 2016. This suggests that fake news sites generate stories based upon topics covered by partisan media which then may use these fake news stories to not only support their claims, but also to draw upon the “buzz” surrounding these issues as an excuse to continue the discussion. In particular, we found that conservative partisan media were more likely to influence the stories generated by fake news purveyors which then affected what issues liberal partisan media reported.

Although our study wasn’t designed to determine how news media were covering fake news (repeating versus refuting the stories), we did include a sample of independent fact-checking sites in our data collection efforts. Given that fact-checkers are journalists who scrutinize the veracity of statements, we wondered whether they were driven by the stories fabricated by fake news sites. However, fact-checker agendas were neither driven by fake news purveyors nor the coverage of any particular type of online media — partisan or otherwise. Moreover, our research indicates that topics covered by fact-checkers were largely not influential in predicting the coverage of online news media overall. This is consistent with other research showing that fact-checks do not spread as widely as misinformation and illustrates the difficulties fact-checkers face in competing with a tidal wave of fake news.

As the conversations continue about the dangers of fake news, we must recognize that not only is it generating attention on social media, but it is also affecting the stories that legitimate news organizations are writing about. This diverts journalistic resources away from other potentially important issues that should be covered. Furthermore, even in the cases where news organizations rebut the fake stories, repeating the fake information breeds familiarity which can induce belief. An understanding of how media create what Walter Lippmann called the pictures in our heads is indispensable in this era of propaganda, fake news, and media masters like Donald Trump.

Michelle A. Amazeen is an assistant professor of mass communication in the Department of Mass Communication, Advertising and Public Relations at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter @commscholar.

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