From the Fake News Department: Dubious Claims and a Jaded Public

Fake News at Bospar Shortly after the midterm elections, President Donald Trump held a press conference that sent the ongoing debate about “fake news” into hyperdrive. In case you missed it, President Trump sparred with CNN reporter Jim Acosta, saying that CNN “should be ashamed of itself having you working for them” and that Acosta was a “rude, terrible person.” An edited video of the encounter that is being circulated by the White House threatens to further erode the credibility of Trump’s press secretary. Also, both the President and many Republicans are pressing as yet unproven claims of election fraud, which are being repeated by partisan media.

Unsurprisingly, recent polling data from Bospar shows that these ongoing attacks on the media and the truth are having a corrosive impact on how people perceive the reality and factual correctness of news coverage. Some 36 percent of Americans will decide a news story is “fake” if they don’t agree with its politics, and 20 percent don’t feel that any news source is trustworthy.

This is especially troubling for us as PR practitioners who are charged with working with the media to disseminate accurate news and information. It is becoming clear that the public has become truly jaded about the media, and many people think that all they are reading, hearing and watching is the product of spin, partisanship or marketing.

This sorry state of affairs is as bad for the PR profession as it is for the news media. Like journalists, PR people are only as good as our word and reputation. We abide by a professional code of ethics, and our goal is to advance our clients’ perspective in a truthful manner. Part of being truthful is helping our clients articulate their position using accurate, buzzword-free communications, rather than offering platitudes like “greatest,” “best in class” and so on. Advocacy is one thing, but fluff is fluff.

While it may sound naïve and old-school, PR people and the materials we create – including basic press releases – should be bound to the highest journalistic standards. Owned media and marketing channels such as websites, collateral, content marketing, social platforms, and advertising can (and should) be self-serving, but the work that we perform in expectation of gaining earned media needs to be of the utmost integrity.

Difficult to establish and easy to break, the relationship currency between PR people and journalists is trust. By saying “no” to fake news in all of its insidious forms, PR people can build and grow trust with constituents across the media ecosystem, including today’s jaded public.

Fake News: When No News is ‘Good’ News

Fake news advice from BosparA quick browse on the internet reveals that some pretty surprising things are happening around the world: vaccines are killing babies and giving dogs autism, Dubai has become a hotspot for UFO sightings, and a cemetery in Ohio is exhuming buried Confederate soldiers and dumping them in a nearby lake.

Wait, what? A cemetery is dumping bodies in a lake?

No. Of course it’s not.

All of these headlines are part of the plight that 21st century Americans have come to know as “fake news.” In case you’ve been off of social media for the last two years, fake news is a particular brand of clickbait that the New York Times defined as any “made-up story with an intention to deceive, often geared towards getting clicks.”

Luckily, Americans are armed with the sturdy logic and critical thinking skills necessary to navigate through this morass of fake news, right? Wrong.

Fake news can count among its successes of the past year the story that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a pizza shop, that Democrats tried to impose Islamic law in Florida and, arguably, the election of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States, who is himself guilty many times over of circulating fake news—or reporting fake facts from fake news articles—on his Twitter feed. He has also, through brilliance or blunder, managed to co-opt the term to refer to any news article he disagrees with, adding to the public’s general befuddlement.

As Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, notes in the New York Times article cited above, fake news sites have not only been incredibly successful at duping people into believing their tall tales, but “the wider problem is fake news has the effect of getting people not to believe real things.”

Bospar’s recent Fake News Study confirmed this assessment. Fielded by Propeller Insights to over 1,000 American adults, the study looked at the extent to which Americans understand “fake news” and how they determine what news sources are trustworthy.

The study found that while just about three-fourths (74 percent) of the American population understand what fake news is, 59 percent also admit to having read and believed a news story only to find out later that it was “fake news.”

Meanwhile, 57 percent of Americans join POTUS in believing that fake news is misinformation deliberately created by mainstream news sites like CNN and MSNBC—a position held by many more Republicans (74 percent) than Democrats (46 percent)—and 19 percent of Americans think any negative coverage of President Trump is fake news, while 15 percent believe any positive coverage of President Trump is fake.

Indeed, politics play a key role in the conversation: when asked how they evaluate whether or not an article is “fake news,” 36 percent of Americans said it had to do with the political views of the source. Other ways that Americans determine whether or not an article is fake news include checking the URL for a weird domain name (34 percent) and Googling the name of the journalist (28 percent). Only 1 in 5 (22 percent) consult fact-checking sites like Snopes.com.

Americans are also reading very different news sources based on their political party affiliations.

While 62 percent of Democrats consider CNN a trustworthy news source, only 22 percent of Republicans do; 57 percent of Democrats consider the New York Times to be a trustworthy news source, but only 20 percent of Republicans do; and 40 percent of Democrats think MSNBC is a trustworthy news source, but only 12 percent of Republicans do. Meanwhile, 53 percent of Republicans think Fox News is trustworthy, but only 29 percent of Democrats do.

There is likewise a split when it comes to which political commentators Americans think are trustworthy:

Republicans Democrats
Sean Hannity 24 percent 4 percent
Rush Limbaugh 24 percent 2 percent
Stephen Colbert 4 percent 17 percent
Trevor Noah 5 percent 13 percent
Seth Meyers 3 percent 11 percent

But perhaps the most worrying finding of the study is that 21 percent of Republicans consider Donald Trump’s Twitter feed to be a trustworthy news source. Only 4 percent of Democrats agree.

Another troubling finding: 1 in 5 Americans (20 percent) don’t think any news sources are trustworthy.

Regardless of how Americans interpret the threat of “fake news,” they mostly agree that there is one. Half (49 percent) say if fake news is allowed to continue at current levels, trust in mainstream media will continue to erode. They also worry about the erosion or disappearance of democracy (40 percent), terrorist incidents (40 percent) and war (36 percent).

In addition, Democrats worry that “fake news” will result in the re-election of President Trump (41 percent), while Republicans worry that it will result in his impeachment (27 percent).

What is being done to neutralize the threat? Facebook continues to roll out features aimed at helping people to identify untrustworthy news sources, but many feel like it is too little too late.

“Ultimately, it’s up to us to be smart about what we read, check our sources, and, above all else, be careful what we share on social media,” said Lynch.