When an eye-catching headline appears on your phone, like a moth to a flame, you scan what it’s about. If it’s as shocking as you thought, chances are you’ll share it with some friends and family. We’re quick to spread information, but sometimes we never take a moment to discern if that story was factually accurate. Fake news is rampant nowadays, on social media and even on television. So, what can we do to stop the misinformation?
In the early hours of Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, Donald Trump Jr. uploaded a brief post to X that read as follows:
“I’m sad to announce, my father Donald Trump has passed away. I will be running for president in 2024.”
The post was shocking, alarming and…fake. Although it was up for less than an hour, the post from the former president’s son was reshared more than a thousand times. Come to find out, Trump Jr.’s social media account, which has more than 10.4 million followers, had been hacked.
News outlets — from cable giants Fox, CNN and MSNBC to local news stations to the BBC — reported the hoax throughout the day. The senior Trump, who takes credit for inventing the term “fake news,” quickly took to his Truth Social platform to announce that he was not dead.
While the Trump fake-news item was expeditiously discredited, hundreds of deliberately misleading or false reports circulate and recirculate on fake news sites, alternative-fact statements and elsewhere on the social media sphere.
News For Views
Maya Brady, a senior in the School of Communication, said the constant bombardment of fake news is frustrating.
“You think you are educating yourself on one thing or reading something at school, and a year later or a day later you can find that it’s not true,” said Brady.
Brady is not alone in her frustration. The public’s trust of the news has fallen to an all-time low. Earlier this year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released their “2023 Digital News Report.” According to the study, in the United States, only 32 percent of those surveyed say they trust news most of the time. The online survey of roughly 94 thousand adults was conducted in 46 global markets, including the U.S.
School of Communication professors Bruce Garrison and Yanfang Wu also have researched public confidence in news sources. According to their research, The Wall Street Journal is the source most trusted by all sides of the political spectrum.
“False news or half-truths affects knowledge,” said Hilda E. Garcia, vice president for digital local news at Televisa Univision Inc. in Miami.
Defining fake news depends a lot on who is defining it, but a review of definitions offered by journalism scholars and practitioners says fake news is intentionally created to manipulate people’s understanding of real facts, events and statements. It is designed to spread false information and deceive the public.
These false reports can do more than just deceive. People will go to crazy lengths for a cause they support – and an untrue story can lead to unwarranted outcomes.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, fake news was circulated regarding a pedophilia ring that involved people at the highest levels of the Democratic Party, which was allegedly operating out of a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant.
In response, a man was arrested after firing a rifle inside the restaurant. The attacker later said he wanted to “self-investigate” the news reports.
“Fake news can have “real-world consequences,” said Hillary Clinton at a Capitol Hill ceremony a month after losing to Trump. “It’s imperative that leaders from the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives.”
Fact-checking outlets, such as Snopes.Com and FactCheck.Org, emerged in the ’90s and several more have formed to help the public determine fact from fake.
“Have 84 members of Congress been arrested for drunk driving in the last year? Have seven been arrested for fraud?” That question was posed to FactCheck.Org in 2009.
FactCheck.Org website continues to discredit a number of statements, videos and memes, including President Biden wrongly claiming to have visited New York City a day after 9/11; an Instagram post that claimed “over 1,000 children were missing” in the wildfires in Maui; and social media posts that claimed the Biden administration opened floodgates along Arizona’s border fencing to allow illegal immigration.
Social Media Scams
Social media platforms have played a significant role in the rapid spread of fake news. Respondents in Garrison and Wu’s 2023 study said they most often consumed and trusted fake news shared on social media by their friends and family that were of like minds.
Brady, the UM senior, said she consults traditional media such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN, but cited Instagram and TikTok as two of her primary news sources. Her preferences are reflected in the Reuters report, which said TikTok is the fastest growing social network used by 18 to 24 year-olds.
Garcia raises a red flag for students and others who rely heavily on social media as their primary news source. She said social media algorithms create a bubble for audiences to reinforce their ideas and beliefs.
Whenever individuals come across information that supports their existing worldview, it strengthens their biases and can make them more vulnerable to misinformation, she and other journalists say.
“You just learn about one way to think, one reality,” Garcia said. “In this sense, beliefs are above the facts, above discussions, debates and smart deliberation.”
In The Field
Apart from fake news outlets and falsified statements by public officials to intentionally mislead or confuse the public, several other factors adversely impact the delivery of news, researchers say.
Fake news should not become a catch-all phrase to explain media bad habits such as sloppy reporting and the rush to publish without sufficient fact-checking. These and other factors also contribute to reader/viewer confusion and distrust.
Garcia, who received her master’s degree in communications in 2005 from UM, has worked in several broadcast and newspaper markets. Some notable locations are Mexico, Los Angeles and New York.
She said broadcast outlets, especially those that are functioning on tighter budgets, repeat the same stories, making it difficult for audiences to understand the importance of the story, the impact, or the way it affects people.
“So many of them just replicate the same story in every single outlet and almost with the same headline,” Garcia said. “There is no way to offer the context. Context for me is key, to make the difference between a good or a bad journalist, between a good media outlet or a bad one. People don’t know the real story, the causes or the consequences.”
Gina Presson, a lecturer in broadcast journalism and writing in the School of Communication, said news audiences do not always distinguish between reporters and commentators.
“We have not done a good job as an industry of clarifying when someone is a commentator,” Presson said. “They are not meant to be objective journalists.”
Presson is also a veteran TV reporter, producer and anchor in Dallas, Tampa, Virginia and North Carolina. In her experience, she noted that newsrooms, especially those with overworked journalists, will be incorporating more artificial intelligence into their operations, which could lead to the dissemination of inaccurate news.
“I think that it will affect news if people choose to take the easy way out and generate too much of a story out of artificial intelligence,” Presson said. “If we use it for the right purposes, we can harness the power of artificial intelligence without sacrificing the quality of what we are doing.”
Miguel Ramirez, an anchor at Telemundo Wisconsin, said it is difficult to compete with new technology “that can create, make up and generate an atmosphere that does not exist. It is very perfect that people fall for it,” he said.
To distinguish fact from fiction, researchers and newsroom professionals recommend confirming stories on multiple news platforms and checking the sources of articles themselves.
News audiences can take responsibility for their own consumption by verifying information before sharing it and being mindful of their own biases, said Trevor Green, the director of graduate studies in journalism and media management at UM.
Green also highlighted that when consuming news in social media, readers have to do more investigating and look at a second source.
“These social media apps make it very easy because they have templates set up to automatically give it this professional look,” Green said. “It’s even more immediate and faster.”
Guiselle Arciniega, a graduate student in the School of Communication, said fake news dissemination could be tackled if journalists keep in mind why they are journalists.
“I think it’s really bad to give fake information to people,” Arciniega said. “We are supposed to be helping our community make the best decisions.”
So, next time you’re reading an article, take the time to critically analyze the piece and really ask yourself: is this fact or crap?
Media Literacy 101
In the age of misinformation and disinformation, the skill of media literacy, or the ability to critically analyze media and determine the accuracy and credibility, has become more important than ever. So, how exactly do you become media literate anyways? Let us here at Distraction walk you through some of our tips and tricks.
- Verify the outside sources – Although we like to think anyone called upon to speak on any given subject would not intentionally deceive audiences, sometimes sources present information in a biased manner. Other times, the cited individual or study may provide information that is simply inaccurate. To verify sources, look up the information and compare with other publications.
- Think critically – Have you ever read or watched something and felt as if you weren’t being told the entire truth? Chances are, you probably aren’t. And that’s okay, healthy skepticism is a good thing. Trust your gut and question the accuracy, reliability and fairness of any given article, TV program or social media post. Looking up other media on the same subject will help you answer these pressing questions.
- Consumer a wider range of media – In the digital age, many of us exist in virtual echo chambers where information presented to us solely affirms or upholds our current beliefs. Through consuming multiple forms of media from differing outlets and publications, you can develop a clearer and more thorough understanding of the world around you.
- Quality over quantity – To build on our previous tip, don’t just strive to consume a set number of news reports a day from a set number of media outlets. Even if you’re reading 50 different articles or watching 10 different TV segments, if they all originate from biased or inaccurate outlets, at that point you’re simply wasting your time.
- Keep an eye out for obvious red flags – When consuming digital news outlets, there are some elements, such as excessive advertising, low-quality graphics, typos or no author, that may mean the source is not reliable or accurate. If you come across a site with any of these features, you may want to click out.
words_charlotte carl, belen duran, mariaregina mendoza & communitywire.miami. illustration_rachel farinas. design_charlotte deangelis.
CommunityWire.Miami is the news service of the graduate journalism program of the School of Communication at the University of Miami.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2023 print issue.
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