November 17, 2021
Two Things Journalists Get Wrong About Fake News
Journalists continue to feel they’re the last and best defense against the spread of fake news. Yet only 14 percent say their own efforts have a significant impact on improving the situation. And they’re skeptical that mitigation efforts such as media literacy campaigns and anti-fake news laws will do anything to turn the tide.
According to our 2021 Fake News report, 84 percent of the 103 journalists surveyed agreed that the weaponized use of the term “fake news” — i.e., when it’s not being used to describe misinformation and disinformation — is contributing to the delegitimization of traditional media and news sources. Furthermore, 89 percent believe that actual disinformation is as dangerous or more dangerous than no news at all.
As a former reporter, I understand journalists’ cynicism — a sentiment common in newsrooms even in happier times. But I also think journalists are wrong to take such a bleak view. From my vantage point, there are two actions that would reduce fake news’ impact, at least over the long term.
We absolutely should support reform efforts around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. And we must simultaneously invest in media literacy education efforts. Here’s why.
Lobby for Section 230 Changes to Hold Big Tech Accountable
A thriving free press plays a vital role in speaking truth to power and holding people accountable for what they say and do. And that means disinformation and misinformation’s threat to journalistic credibility is a threat to the very fabric of our democracy.
We asked journalists what, if anything, can be done.
Journalists don’t believe Big Tech’s efforts to police themselves will be effective. There are plenty of instances, including a Facebook insider-turned-whistleblower, to suggest they’re spot on about that.
But when we asked journalists if the government should move forward with amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and enforce greater regulations on Big Tech, the response was lukewarm. Fewer than half believed reforms were necessary, and 38 percent remained neutral on the subject. Those who definitely did not support reform were more forceful in their responses. One respondent adamantly said, “Free speech shouldn’t be trampled on.”
It’s understandable and commendable that members of the press are protective of the First Amendment. But there are already limits to free speech that act as guardrails for society. And amending Section 230, if done right, can be another smart limit.
Section 230 currently grants broad protections to internet platforms — including social media giants — from liability associated with comments made by their users. But the law was written 25 years ago, long before the advent of the digital-first era and prior to social media’s ubiquity. It doesn’t — how could it? — account for the vast reach disinformation can have in today’s world. And it certainly doesn’t factor in the algorithms and machine learning that propagate fake news while turning a profit for the platform itself.
Given that both sides of the political divide have legitimate concerns about the power of Big Tech and its influence over our society, it seems feasible that lawmakers could reach consensus about reform. Holding social media and Big Tech accountable through greater regulation could be an important first step in stemming the tide of fake news and reducing its harmful impact.
Stay Active in Media Literacy Efforts
All that said, I can understand cynicism by journalists and, really, most people about the government’s ability to regulate our way toward ending fake news. Gridlock has been a fixture in Washington for a long time to say nothing of how journalism’s very integrity was attacked by the highest office in the land for four straight years.
But it’s surprising that reporters and editors are also so cynical about the potential for education to make a difference. Only 33 percent of respondents felt media literacy efforts have a high or moderate impact on lessening the spread of fake news. One in five said they had no impact at all.
Journalists should hold out a little more hope about the positive effects of education. This report found that media literacy intervention in the U.S. and India “improved discernment between mainstream and false news headlines” by 26.5 percent. Meanwhile, media literacy efforts are increasing across the nation. In fact, 14 states have taken legislative action aimed at teaching media literacy to K-12 students. Illinois recently became the first state in the nation to mandate all public high schools include media literacy as part of the curriculum. And in Colorado, lawmakers enacted legislation to create an online repository of media literacy resources that teachers can easily access and use.
It will take time, but media literacy efforts have the potential to help a new generation engage with media in a more responsible, discerning way. Only when audiences have the knowledge to help identify disinformation and misinformation themselves will they think twice before hitting that “share” button. They might even take time to debunk the bad information they see on social media if they’ve been taught how to do it.
If Journalists and PR Professionals Don’t Take Up the Fight Against Fake News, Who Will?
We can’t afford to throw up our hands and give into cynicism when it comes to the future of our society. We must lean into opportunities that will make a difference. That means being open if not supportive to reforms to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act or other ways to leverage regulation so it can catch up with technology, like perhaps taking a different view on antitrust law.
But it also means not waiting for the government to act. We need to do our part to invest in media literacy efforts in our communities. That might mean supporting nonprofits committed to advancing this cause. Or it could involve volunteering to speak in a classroom and work with students first-hand.
In the coming months, Greentarget will be renewing and ramping up our investment in local media literacy education efforts. And we’ll continue to stand with journalists to combat the negative effects of fake news.