The More You Know: Media and Power

Case Studies from UW Bothell Media & Communication Studies

Can Fake News Be Good News?

Unidentified News Source

    How young people consume news has always been a major aspect in shaping their political and social beliefs.  With the rise of cable television and now the internet, coupled with mobile devices that allow quick and easy news consumption anywhere, teens have more choices and availability to news sources than ever.  Author Regina Marchi surveyed a number of teens for her article “With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic “Objectivity” and compiled the results of the questions posed to these teens.  What she found was a shift away from consumption of and a rejection of ‘traditional’ news sources and outlets.  The teens surveyed felt that traditional news sources had little relevance to the events that affected their lives, and that what teens considered of importance was not even mentioned by these traditional news outlets.  Furthermore, the teens surveyed didn’t trust local and national newspapers and tv to be honest with them – one teen went so far as to say “news is entertainment because everything they repeat is not what people really need to know. It isn’t stuff that can help you.” (Marchi 251).

    Taking the news-is-entertainment comment further, teens felt they could connect more deeply on a personal level with information tailored specifically for them on blog sites and Facebook feeds, places not specifically designed to report news but rather designed primarily to entertain.  In this way facts and entertainment begins to blur for teens, many of whom have grown up in a world where Facebook and the like have always existed.  A perceived Facebook benefit is the way algorithms that feed posts into a person’s Facebook account have grown more sophisticated, thus giving teens the feeling that the relevance of the posts on their frequently visited blog sites is more in keeping with their wants and desires. It’s also important to note that teens think people posting on blogs and Facebook are being honest and transparent.  Embedded links allowed readers to follow a site across multiple channels to delve more deeply into subjects of interest to them.  Likewise, comment sections allowed teens to hear different views about a subject, to better help inform their decisions.  

    This idea of honesty is important to note when looking at how teens and young adults perceive traditional news sources.  What stands out is that perceived dishonesty in this case may be confused with inaction. Maintaining objectivity, confirming sources, and reporting (not passing judgments) on events and people is the job of journalists in the media sphere. It is this objectivity and lack of action that seems to irritate teens about straight news reporting the most.  “The appearance of objectivity is staunchly maintained by professional news outlets, giving rise to skepticism among the public, particularly the young.”  (Marchi 255). By reporting but not condemning, many teens feel the news doesn’t fully get to the heart of the issue – namely, who or what is to blame.

     The lack of reporting on youth is something teens and young adults feel is not a concern of the mainstream news media.  If Facebook and humorous news programs are what teens and young adults enjoy and feel are more in line with their interests and worldview, does this inherently pose a threat to democracy and integrity?  Rejecting traditional news sources for alternative means of news consumption does not have to pose a threat to the truthfulness of information being reported.  While some might say that journalistic credibility is being eroded by humorous news sites and news programs like The Daily Show, more than a third of the teens said they got most of their news from humorous talk or radio shows.  Indeed some researchers have found that “these shows enact the classical watchdog role of the press by striving, through satire, to hold powerful authorities accountable for what they say and do.”  (Marchi 254). Fake news programs like The Daily Show don’t actually produce their own content.  They function more like a late-night talk show, in that they provide information culled from that day’s news and information.  “This media content is then modified, ridiculed, and subjected to novel interpretations. Consequently, viewers who do not have hard news as a reference point may tend not to discount fake-news messages as unrealistic.”  (Balmas 434). What this survey is telling us is that people who tend to consume primarily fake news because they have embraced not only the entertainment aspects but also the activist aspects (here activist means pointing fingers or ridiculing those in power, something teens pointed out in Marchi’s study that they wished hard news would do more frequently) may come to perceive fake news as more realistic than actual hard news.  It must be remembered though that even fake news on The Daily Show and the like are derived from hard news, since they are culling information from the day’s current events, not making up fictitious wholesale content.  

     So, while fake news programs can provide a different insight into political workings and politicians, studies have shown that absorbing primarily fake news tends to lead viewers into problems discerning fake news from real news.  The problem with viewing satirical news not only as entertainment but also as factual information is one of deepened distrust, cynicism, and political alienation.  When your primary sources of news tend to portray all politicians as incompetent and corrupt, it can lead viewers to feel angry and alienated from the political process, and of feeling powerless to enact change.  While fake news may get the day’s headlines to the viewers, it isn’t necessarily providing a positive portrayal of those in charge.  On the other hand, it was found that those who consumed both hard news and fake news – and consumed more hard than fake news – had an easier time decoding the messages within fake news and understanding the humorous, sarcastic elements; thus consumers of both hard and fake news together were able to discern the underlying messages and reporting by having enough educated opinions to cut through the snark.

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     In addition to humorous sites like The Daily Show, the internet recently has come to be inundated with different types of fake news; these fake news articles are actually clickbait or native advertising worded to appear to be genuine news articles.  And while most of these are harmless ads that want the reader to buy more almonds or watch specific television shows, some are providing blatantly false information; information that is meant specifically to misinform or provide only one side of a story.  The most famous example of this was #pizzagate.  On December 4th of 2016, a North Carolina man opened fire upon a pizza restaurant named Comet Ping Pong.  He did this after reading a false news story, an online conspiracy theory shared on Facebook that claimed the pizza restaurant was the headquarters of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton.  The gunman believed the post was providing factual information.  A study done by the Stanford History Education Group tested middle-school, high-school, and college students to determine if they could grasp the claims presented in online media sources to determine their veracity.  Often, students couldn’t tell real news from fake, and even when they could determine an article was fake, lacked the ability to describe what made the article a fake.  It’s clear this problem with determining real from fake online articles extends to adults as well.

The goal then is to determine how best to get younger news consumers to be able to identify real news from fake and how best to balance their news intake.  As with most things, it comes down to a properly tailored education program.  By educating children about the differences between hard news, humorous news programs, and native advertising, schools can teach teens and young adults how to read a news source, and research where the news came from and how to determine the legitimacy of the group posting the news and their specific goals.  In this way young news consumers can take away accurate messages from multiple types of news sources to become more involved, better educated and more politically active members of society.

Works Cited

  1. Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic “Objectivity”. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), 246-262. doi:10.1177/0196859912458700
  1. Balmas, M. (2014). When Fake News Becomes Real. Communication Research,41(3), 430-454. doi:10.1177/0093650212453600
  1. Shellenbarger, S. (2016 November 22). Why Students Might Not Know If This Story Is Fake — A new Stanford study finds most teens get news online without considering the source; how to teach research, skepticism. Wall Street Journal. p.A11
  1.  Rosen, Larry Ph.D. “The Daily Show Effect: Attracting Young Voters to Politics One Joke at a Time.” Psychology Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.
  1. Stelter, Brian. “The plague of fake news is getting worse — here’s how to protect yourself.” CNN Media, 2016 November 1, http://money.cnn.com/2016/10/30/media/facebook-fake-news-plague/.

     6.  Hagopian, Joachim. “Pizzagate: Podesta pedo perps and Clinton’s international child      sex trafficking ring exposed.” The Millennium Report, 2016 December 5,      http://themillenniumreport.com/2016/12/pizzagate-podesta-pedo-perps-and-clintons-international-child-sex-trafficking-ring-exposed/.

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