Thursday, August 10, 2017

BuzzFeed editor: Fake news is a historic challenge that local news outlets are well suited to fight

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

CHICAGO – Online misinformation, or fake news, "is the biggest information challenge in the history of humanity," and local news outlets should do something about it, the media editor of BuzzFeed News told America's largest journalism convention Wednesday night, Aug. 9.

"This is a challenge we have never encountered before in the history of human communication," Craig Silverman said in the keynote address to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications' 100th annual meeting, in Chicago.

Silverman outlined the tremendous reach of fake-news publishers based in countries like Macedonia, whose advertising revenue from one social-media post can easily exceed the monthly average income in the Balkan country – which was the source of much misinformation about Hillary Clinton before last year's presidential election.

"Misinformation about American politics is actually an international business opportunity now," Silverman said, adding that one 20-year-old in Macedonia is "knocking the pants off a lot of American publishers." He presented results of an analysis of partisan news sites from January 2015 through March 2017, which showed a boom in such sites in the past year.

In the question-and-answer session, Silberman was asked how journalists and academics could fight the phenomenon. He suggested that local news outlets hold community media-literacy seminars: "a bottom-up approach, because there's trust among people" of their local newspaper editors.

In his speech, Silberman said the topic needs more research, and suggested that academics and journalists collaborate, sharing data and ideas before publication. He said journalists are able to elicit answers from business and government officials that academic researchers are often unable to get.

With democratic institutions under attack in the United States and fake-news publishers preying on the public's doubts, he said, "We need all hands on deck with this."

Silberman's speech reminded me of a point I made earlier in the day in a panel discussion about the news media at The Louisville Forum. I said journalists must do a better job of explaining how they do their jobs, and if I were publishing a newspaper today, its editorial page and home page would have a standing box saying what the paper stood for, that opinion is separate from news, that readers should blow the whistle when they see otherwise, and that the newspaper follows the principles outlined in the book The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, which says "The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification" – something absent in social media.

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