Fake News

Since President Trump entered the political arena we’ve heard constant accusations about “fake news” and biased media. Are such accusations accurate? Sure. At least some of the time. But not always. Just because the media write or report things about which you disagree doesn’t make that news “fake”.

It is a given that media are biased because newspapers are written by humans, TV news is reported by humans, and news websites are managed by humans. Humans are biased. However, legitimate news outlets do everything possible to minimize that bias whereas some sources of information don’t even try. Unfortunately, it seems that a sizeable portion of my fellow citizens tend to pay attention to information reported by the most biased and unreliable sources.

The general assumption is that news outlets in America tend to be left leaning and unfair to more conservative points of view, and there are certainly a good many liberal news outlets. However, there appears to be an almost equal number of right leaning outlets, especially in recent years.

Also, Political Scientist David D’Alessio, a noted expert on media, published an important work analyzing media reporting of campaigns from 1948-2008. D’Alessio focused on 99 previous studies of presidential campaigns and how media reported on those campaigns. Guess what he found? No general media bias. In other words some sources such as FOX news predictably leaned right in reporting on presidential races and others like MSNBC leaned left.

But why? Is it because the media outlets are trying to cause people to accept liberal or conservative opinions or candidates? No. They report conservative and liberal ideas because that is precisely what their readers want. People who watch FOX are “conservative”, so FOX offers conservative reporting. People who watch MSNBC are “liberals” so they are fed what they want as well. Both FOX and MSNBC are corporations driven by profit and they maximize that profit by pandering to their viewers. And CNN, the oldest satellite news channel, is also motivated by its viewers’ political views because that network also demonstrably leans to the left. 

Interestingly, we tend to trust the print media more than broadcast outlets, but an exhaustive study of newspapers clearly demonstrated that if a newspaper has a larger number of conservative readers it will offer more conservative reporting and the opposite is true of papers with mostly liberal readers.

Does this mean these news sources are always unreliable? No, but it means we should consider the source’s reporting in light of its ideological leanings. Most if not all media outlets are biased, but even the most liberal and most conservative media may report stories truthfully. The problem is that our own biases lead us to ignore those outlets that tend to report in a way that contradicts our own biases, so we don’t always get both sides of stories.

This chart, taken from a report published last week by the Gallup/Knight Foundation, clearly demonstrates Americans’ biases and how those biases impact our reliance on trusted media outlets. It should be no surprise that Democrats and Republicans trust different news sources.

We get the news we want.

What is my point? As individuals we are biased, we tend to pay attention to news sources that support our biases, and those outlets favor our bias because that is what we want. And they do so because they are in the business of making money.

So what are America’s MOST and LEAST reliable sources of information? Oddly, I tend to trust The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) more than most other sources, but that trust depends on the topic. I think, for example that BBC does a pretty good job of covering American domestic news but it hasn’t been as objective on Brexit (Britain leaving the European Union). I also generally trust NPR although the writers and reporters there often let their agendas impact their reporting as well (again, they are human). And I believe the Wall Street Journal tends to be fairly objective.

And what source of information is the least trustworthy? As it turns out it may be President Trump himself. Last week he set his own weekly record by making 103 false claims. That means he made false claims at a rate of 15 per day. If you believe this is fake news I encourage you to read this report that provides each of the 103 statements then compares those statements to demonstrable facts.

The bottom line is that news outlets do sometimes report “fake news”, but President Trump, the loudest indicter of “fake news”, reports such news at a much more alarming rate and gets away with it. The Toronto Star found that during the first 821 days of his presidency he made 1,829 false claims, or about 3.5 such claims each day. Most of these are not outright lies but are instead exaggerated statistics, attempts to misdirect the public’s attention, or attempts to inflame the emotions of his core supporters.

The most problematic source of fake news is pretty obvious.

The solution? Pay attention!

A NOTE: I begin a new job next week and have no idea whether I’ll have much time to add to my blog. I certainly hope I will. Thanks so much for following along.