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Viewpoints: Fake news harms us all

By Cindy Skrzycki

The sad but unavoidable truth of our time is that media illiteracy – the inability to discern real news from the fake – is rampant. But what is even more troubling is that the importance of news has fallen so far so rapidly, except perhaps in elite circles, that most people cannot tell the difference between a cooked-up story splashed across the internet or a news flash from Reuters.

Medial illiteracy harms us all. It devalues the importance of news and how it is gathered. It ignores the fact that here in Buffalo and across the country, news reporters are on the streets in communities and around the world doing what the press in many countries cannot do – collect the news freely and investigate government corruption.

Every time a falsity flies free on the internet – a flight of fancy that someone in the media may be duped into covering, or examining – there is real damage. As it flies across news feeds all over the world, reporters are in the position of proving it false. That’s harder today than it used to be, because people will believe anything if it’s on Facebook or Twitter.

That process of disproving the false and defending the true takes time and money away from covering the stories that need to be told, and these days traditional news organizations and younger news organizations have no money to waste.

In Washington, the result is a White House press corps that spends more time fact checking Sean Spicer and President Trump than it does listening to anonymous sources who might deliver the tip for a blockbuster investigation.

Indeed it is odd, ironic, sad and quite unbelievable that David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting two weeks ago for an investigation of a big whopper from the president of the United States. Sure, politicians have always fibbed. But this was a big one that took months of reporting and checking with some 450 charitable organizations to nail down Trump’s record as a charitable donor. What did Farenthold find? That Trump was a fake philanthropist.

Media aggregators like Facebook do no such lonely, hard and sometimes unrewarding work. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, denies it, but his creation is a publisher without any of the attendant obligations and responsibilities that a Warren Buffet, whose company owns The Buffalo News, or an Arthur Sulzberger, whose family controls the New York Times, shoulder: Be a watchdog, report the truth, guard the First Amendment, be a public good.

Instead, Facebook’s stock in trade is algorithms, not oversight. And with some 6 billion users, the Silicon Valley company is pretty much the maestro of where and how information moves around the world.

When the company released its fourth-quarter earnings, Zuckerberg said, “Our mission to connect the world is more important now than ever. Our biz did well in 2016, but we have a lot of work ahead to help bring people together.”

He sounds like the idealistic chief of a digital start-up worrying about whether friends and family are connecting quickly enough. But the company posted more than $1 billion in quarterly net income and the price for ads in Facebook’s main news feed in North America rose as much as 20 percent last year. Newspapers thought it was their best bet to share in some of those clicks.

In an age when the real is obscured by the fake to an extent where discernment is impossible, real newspapers like the Guardian, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have pulled out of their deals with Facebook and, in some cases, Apple. The revenue they expected did not materialize and they didn’t want to be part of a feed that could present literally anything to readers.

On the other side of the screen, Facebook users assume all is well. They don’t have to pay for a newspaper or digital news and they have enough coming to them to keep them happy. After all, who spends but a few minutes on the news except those transfixed by CNN after the U.S. drops a huge bomb or Fox followers watching in horror as their favorite commentator is fired for losing advertisers for the company.

So we can only hope that top news organizations go back to what they can control: Report, write and publish the news on your own newsprint or pixels. Figure out a way to keep paying reporters. The Guardian explained its move this way:

“Our primary objective is to bring audiences to the trusted environment of the Guardian to support building deeper relationships with our readers, and growing membership and contributions to fund our world-class journalism.”

In other words, the truth outs. Or as George Orwell said: In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.

Cindy Skrzycki is a former Buffalo News and Washington Post journalist who is a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. This column is based on remarks she made Monday as the Fitzpatrick lecturer at Canisius College.

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