The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.
This week, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism revealed fascinating public opinions about the epidemic of misinformation, fabricated reports and viral social media stories that have all fallen under the banner of “fake news.” The report came just as Facebook, under fire for its publishing policies, issued new guidelines aimed at fighting fake news. For its part, the social media giant has pledged to alter its algorithms and advertising policies.
If only fixing the mess the nation is in were just as simple.
Public attitudes about what is fake news are worthy of examining. For the most part, the technology and media class has been at the head of the table on this topic. What the rest of the world considers fake news is enlightening, because it exposes to my media eye a need for those of us at the microphone to look deeper than simply keywords and content, but community.
The study, compiled through focus groups, hinted that audiences have a nuanced take on what constitutes fake news. Media obfuscations, according to participants, are not just an issue of outright lies, but also shades of gray. Of interest, respondents said clickbait — that sensationalized headline and story or unreliable reporting — and opinion-laden and -implicit reports are, to them, fake news. Just as noteworthy is the public’s view that discussions of misinformation have become biased and partisan; as researchers remark, politicians like Pres. Trump are “leveraging a very real frustration in many quarters, but people are also aware that the term is increasingly weaponized.”
In response to the explosion of misleading content, more grant money and investors than ever before are fueling an international effort to combat misinformation. Big business sees false reporting as a threat to the bottom line and is making its own moves against fake news. All the initiatives are necessary. However, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism survey concludes battling fake news does not address a much bigger issue. The public more and more believe reporting is fundamentally misleading and fits into broad categories of poor journalism, political propaganda or misleading forms of advertising.
Charges that serious underscore a gulf of trust. Pollsters from Pew Research and many more have extensively covered distrust of the media, citing the disputes the most recent research conveyed, among other contentions. On the noncommercial media side, former NPR CEO Ken Stern has decried the demagoguery of rightist politicians and the groupthink of a leftist press. As with the complexity of public opinion, however, the problem of fake news is as much about the platform as it is the words used.
Enter community media. As our hyperlocal ambassadors for democracy, community radio can fill a tremendous need in the United States these days. It lifts up the nation by ways more reliable than a fresh, new codebase. When the country turns to community media, it builds on a legacy of good, old-fashioned human interaction.
As anyone who has watched a Facebook flame war knows, social media is very easy to abuse with misleading statements, false information and half-truths. Fake news goes viral on social media and it becomes nearly impossible to dispel among some circles. Because social media is largely so impersonal, where you rarely see regular posters in your neighborhood, the grocery store or church, it is harder to keep honest those who spread disinformation, accidentally or on purpose. Facebook simultaneously brings us closer while tearing us apart.
Local organizations by design have greater accountability because they live in a “real time” world with people who know one another and can keep each other answerable to facts. It is one thing to post that the security guard wounded in the recent Las Vegas massacre previously worked for the Clinton Foundation. Guess what? If I do that on my local community radio station, I’m going to hear from people — my neighbors, co-workers and friends — right away that I’m incorrect.
Community radio has loyalty uncommon in media today because listeners trust stations to offer texture to the stories they hear. There is undoubtedly a lot of liberal opinion too, but the best of community media, like WNCU’s The Legal Eagle Review and KUNM’s Let’s Talk New Mexico, help us understand America in an open, nonpartisan and dynamic way.
How could community radio serve the fight against fake news? Positioning its credibility on local, human curation and broadcasts that center listener involvement should be central to such efforts. Although community media has to get its affairs in order — setting standards for ethics, bias and opinion; cultivating online and social components to such endeavors; internal controls that ensure fact from opinion is distilled and sanctioned when false. Still, these local radio stations’ foundation of programming that has a community inspired by truth is a good place to start.