PORTLAND, Me — On May 12 David Brancaccio from the Marketplace Morning Report on NPR and Lisa DeSisto, the Chief Executive Officer for Maine Today Media, sat down to talk frankly about fake news, how to avoid fake news, and how to broadcast news honestly.
At 7:30 a.m., people poured into the Hannaford Hall. USM President Glenn Cummings began the event with a speech. “David Brancaccio will be the graduation speaker tomorrow,” he said. “Today, he is going to be discussing fake news – news that’s used to manipulate not to inform.”
One the guest speakers introducing the event was Chelsea Bard, a 2017 graduate who is pursuing journalism. Bard enthusiastically spoke about her experience at USM.
“I’m aspiring to become a journalist in the future,” Bard said. She told the audience that when she began her college career, she was scared, but USM quickly became her second home. She recalled that when she was a freshman, she was an undeclared major who fell in love with communications and media through taking one CMS course.
For the main event, Brancaccio and DeSisto took their seats at center stage. DeSisto began the conversation by asking Brancaccio how fake news got started.
“We do live in this amazing era where made-up stuff gets shared as actual news,” Brancaccio answered. He recalled that what disturbed him most was that reasonable and educated people trafficked fake news. Brancaccio noted that the amount of likes on online fake news pieces convinced them that the information was accurate.
Brancaccio advised the audience to question their friends and family members when they shared false information. “When a friend tells you a fabricated news story,” he said. “You should call them out and talk about it with them.”
“The stakes are so high,” Brancaccio said. “We all have to participate in this. It’s about social media getting weaponized.” One point he made regarding a benefit of social media was the connectivity people have with close friends and family. The harm from social media sites, as Brancaccio explained, comes from those who fabricate news articles with the intent to deceive. An example he shared with the crowd was how anonymous organizations in Russia and the U.S. have attempted to distort real news to sway political opinion.
“They went after the French elections the other day,” he said. According to Brancaccio, if fake news proprietors shove enough countries into nationalism, the European Union (EU) falls apart. He suggested to the audience that the EU was established to prevent World War III and that the destruction of the organization could have detrimental effects on the world.
DeSisto asked Brancaccio, “Do you feel that the term ‘fake news’ has become genericized?” Offering her own opinion, DeSisto told the audience she thinks the phrase is used to discredit all media.
Brancaccio said this is the golden age of mainstream media because the resources necessary to do serious news reporting and investigative work is not possible to do from one’s parents’ basement. He said that journalism takes sustained effort, commitment, and resources to explain important events.
“We do mess this stuff up,” Brancaccio said. He said that when he was working with the PBS show NOW, they covered important stories, such as assaults on dignity and places where the economy was not serving people. According to Brancaccio, media just began covering how the economy does not always help citizens, such as when the Electrolux Refrigerator Plant in Wisconsin planned to move to Mexico. Brancaccio said that there was a huge outcry so, the show picked up on it. After Brancaccio broadcasted the story, six months later Electrolux moved their plant to Mexico anyway.
“We try to make people aware through our coverage,” Brancaccio said. “We treat our audience as engaged public citizens not as consumer objects.”
DeSisto asked Brancaccio what the influence of the personalized news feed that matched readers’ biases had on readers and whether user comments added value to the content.
“You can create essentially your own custom news,” Brancaccio answered. Readers can search key words they are interested in or Google learns what interests them and pushes subscribers toward news it thinks they want to know. It doesn’t encourage them to learn news that they may want to know, he said.
An important life lesson in media is that journalists have to do a better job empathizing with people, he continued. It makes the world a better place, but it takes travel and opening one’s eyes to new ways of thinking.
“It’s dangerous to get down in our rabbit holes that confirm our biases,” Brancaccio observed. He said that it is problematic that people wall themselves off into news ecosystems that confirm individual biases. Brancaccio told the audience that each state of America has its own news communities. “We have different media systems that can’t even agree on the basic facts and it’s super dangerous to our democracy,” he concluded.
On the question of comments, Brancaccio replied that this is a changing time in news coverage where media allows discussions to be held following an article or broadcast.
Brancaccio told the audience that in online journalism, commenters’ identities are often masked. He added that these opinionated comments can be dangerous because they end up in as search results.
Brancaccio asked DeSisto what Maine Today Media websites such as The Portland Press Herald does about facilitating a productive discussion. She replied that the sites have started to disable the comments section on news stories that they feel will not invite polite conversations. Another method to approaching the problem has been to only allow subscribers to comment.
“I’m not a fan of anonymous commenting online,” Brancaccio said. He noted that while there are invaluable sites that allow survivors from injustices, such as sexual assault to anonymously talk to each other about their experiences, anonymity on news sites may not be appropriate.
DeSisto made the point that some people comment when they have not read the story. She said Norway Public Broadcasting makes their readers answer three questions about the article before commenting, as a way to make sure they are not simply trolling a site or specific content.
Returning to the conversation of fake news, Brancaccio said that for many years on April Fool’s day, Marketplace Morning Report would air a ridiculous fake news story on purpose to joke with listeners. The last one, he said, was in 2002 on how poachers in Alaska were using laser beams to catch fish.
Because it was just after 9/11, Brancaccio recalled that most listeners were very upset by a false story being shared on air. Some listeners felt that they could not trust the radio anchors anymore because they were lied to. One listener wrote to Brancaccio about the April Fool’s prank story saying they would never listen to the media in an uncritical way again.
Brancaccio said that his goal is journalistic integrity, but he values citizens engaging in the story and sharing other news pieces that grant perspective on the news. To combat fake news, he said that everyone needs to do this.
As Brancaccio said, to uphold that journalistic integrity discuss the news in an open and honest space. To promote truth, be critical of the news and call out fabricated news stories. As a journalist, empathize with the public, treat them with respect and make citizens aware through coverage.