Fact-check sites merely tell people what to believe. Better to teach them how to figure it out for themselves.
By Allison Salerno
Dr. James F. Hamilton has been researching and teaching the history and practice of journalism and democratic communication for more than a quarter century. His research interests include alternative media and the history of disinformation and misinformation in journalism.
I recently spent about an hour talking to him at his offices at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he currently chairs the Department of Entertainment and Media Studies. The below interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Taking the long view, what’s unique about this troubled moment in journalism?
What’s very different, and causing the journalistic crisis we see today, is the brazenness of certain high-level people in dismissing facts that are demonstrably, objectively established. A fact is something that can be verified. Interpretation is a value-laden sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s desirable and what’s not desirable. That’s a legitimate difference.
Think about the claims for the turnout for Trump’s inauguration. It’s proven by a picture. What’s coming out of the White House, in refuting demonstrable facts and calling it “Fake News,” is unparalleled. A lot of people on the right are dismissing criticisms against them in the same way. It’s not just the president.
There’s a growing discussion about how to re-establish the public’s respect for facts, and its ability to tell the difference. The solution with the oldest pedigree is the third-party fact-checker. Do sites like PolitiFact still have a role to play?
Fact-checking organizations take the onus off the public by asking readers and viewers to trust them. It is a top-down, dependency relationship. Instead of empowering, it sets up this other thing they are just supposed to blindly trust.
What has to happen, at least as one way forward, is the building of institutions to help viewers and readers become skeptical — and become skilled at being skeptical. Critical media literacy is not just about the technical skill set. It’s about understanding the institutional and economic and political contexts, and how they shape the kind of news and information that we see.
Right now, the populations that are most skilled at grassroots critical media literacy are those of the former Soviet Union and its satellites. For example, there is a wonderful website that has been put together by the Mohyla Journalism School in Kiev, Ukraine, Stopfake.org. They don’t simply adjudicate fake content, although some of its material does this. The more important move is to teach people how to research content themselves. It practices a broadly educational and grassroots approach to build skills among its readers and viewers. It teaches people how to research and recognize fake news. It is not the only such site, and they did not invent this approach, but they figured out a compelling way to put it into practice. As the saying goes, you can give a person a fish, or you can teach them how to fish.
What is it about the modern way we consume news that has created a culture of misinformation and distrust? The Internet often gets the attention, but what else is going on?
In the past, consuming news was a communal act. The various newspapers from the major parties were generally available in taverns, in pubs, locally, and this is where people would congregate, read them and talk about them, discuss them and debate them and argue. It was a public process of deliberation.
Today, it’s a private process. People are isolated in their living rooms or in their own social media bubbles. That degree of exchange and interchange does not exist to the same extent today, despite social media, which actually exacerbates the problem.
How does that “private process” become an easy target of media manipulation and complicate the problem?
Let me explain by giving an example. Back in the so-called yellow press days of the early 20th century, a photographer from the New York Daily News snuck a camera into an electric chair execution, and snapped a picture of Ruth Snyder, who had been convicted of premeditated murder, when electricity was coursing through her body. The Daily News had that picture on its front page the next day. Bad taste, you bet. Horrific in a lot of ways, absolutely. But it was done for shock value, purely to sell papers.
Nowadays, you have the same intention to get eyeballs and attract viewership to maximize ad revenue. But content is not just about an abstract shock value, it’s about dragging people’s most personal sense of themselves, hitting it with a hammer, and getting them so upset that they believe their way of life is threatened, or they themselves are personally at risk or devalued. It’s this personal kind of connection that is much more virulent and that makes people much more susceptible to manipulation. It pulls the strings of people’s deepest sense of themselves and what they value. It disables people’s ability to talk across those lines and have honest debates and discussions. It hardens divisions. And it does so on purpose.
There’s a lot at stake, including the ability of societies to publicly debate very important issues: climate change, other kinds of ecological catastrophes, the increasing gap between the wealthy and the rest of us. There is a huge number of problems that the only solution is one in which people come together and hash it out and figure out what we are going to do.
The rise of fake news has led to new forms of media watchdog groups. What are the origins of attempts to police the news and bring transparency to journalism?
In this country, media criticism has been around since at least the early 20th century, when people like George Seldes were writing about the biases of corporate-advertising-supported news. In England, media criticism has been around since the mid-19th century, certainly from the labor point of view.
Beginning in the 1980s, the political right in this country has adopted, if not co-opted, the strategies, tactics, and organization of what had been a leftist alternative media and model of media criticism. But with some big differences. A lot of the so-called grassroots political right groups are very well funded by the Koch brothers and all the rest of it, so it’s hardly a grass-roots kind of response [to alleged media bias]. I have been very interested to see this reversal, this co-optation of progressive media criticism, because this is what underlays all these claims of “Fake News.”
Given the state of affairs, it can be easy to forget that these problems have deep roots. Can you talk a little about historical antecedents of misinformation and media distrust?
The phrase with the capital “F” and a capital “N” is a very recent development, emerging only in the past two years. But fake news with a lowercase “f” and a lowercase “n” — the use of deception, or the use of subterfuge as part of news coverage — of course has been around as long as news has, and even prior to that.
We see examples as far back as Elizabethan England in the late 16th century with so-called “newsbooks.” There were stories about prophecies, about sign from the heavens [similar to] headlines in the National Enquirer today, “Astrologer Forecasts the World is Ending October 10,” or whatever. So, self-interested deception — we’ve seen it for hundreds of years.
An early, oft-cited example of someone writing something for money, no matter if it was true or not, is Marchamont Nedham a writer during the English Civil War (1642–1651) who published in support of both sides (first one, then the other). His case foreshadows the cynical takes of professional journalists whose work is not based on individual principles, but solely on making a quick buck.
Allison Salerno is an independent writer and audio producer based in Athens, Ga. Her work has appeared on National Public Radio and on Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy podcast, among other places. Her website is www.allisonbsalerno.com
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Last edited: January 23, 2019
Author: Allison Salerno
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik