Relentless attacks by the TrumpAdministration since the inauguration of the nation’s 45th presidenthave targeted the press, undermining trust in reporters and in what themainstream media reports, as the president constantly describes news stories thathe despises as “Fake News.” With tweetstorms and repeated verbal assaults on the news media, from newspapers totelevision broadcasters and from radio personalities to individual reporters,this unceasing barrage is not only a threat to free expression by journalists andtheir First Amendment rights but also an attack on the integrity of theinformation and media standards to inform the public. Who’s at fault and what’s at play for thisoccurring? From a theoretical framework,I see the communication theories of agenda setting and rhetoric playing crucialroles for both media and news consumers in addressing this fake news crisis: howdo we view credibility in media coverage, particularly in light of a newsenvironment with such distributed ownership and little accountability, and whosets the agenda for what is news? Both ofthese contexts will be examined within this research analysis of scholarlyliterature regarding fake news recently published.First, words matter; not just words, butthe choice of words matters.
When thephrase “fake news” is used, who is defining fake and why is that definitionbeing used? Aristotle’s approach to rhetoriccan shift between two conflicting perspectives, with ethical speakers attemptingto always provide the truth versus deceitful speakers deliberately spreadingfalsehoods (Griffin et. al, 2015). Rhetoric as persuasion uses internal proofscreated by the speakers—logos, ethos, and pathos—which appeal to the audiencethrough the message itself, the personal character and credibility of theperson delivering the message, and then how the audience emotionally acceptsthe message. Germane to fake news withregard to ethical proof in this context is the perception by the news consumerof the messenger’s credibility and intentions. Aristotle pointed to the factors of perceivedintelligence, virtuous character, and goodwill or the intentions of themessenger toward the audience as being critical. With regard to fake news, this is relevant basedon the degree to which an audience perceives the credibility of the messengersince negative portrayals will further erode confidence in the media and theirmessaging. Also of interest is emotionalproof–pathos—of how the message resonates with the audience and if the effectis one of anger, hatred, fear, or indignation or one of mildness, friendship,confidence, or admiration. Within anenvironment that goes contrary to pathos, it would seem that a fertile breedingspace is created in a digital media landscape for fake news to further propagateand flourish.
A second framework within which toconsider fake news is the agenda-setting theory of Maxwell McCombs and DonaldShaw. They point to the Watergatebreak-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972 and thesubsequent media coverage that ultimately ousted Richard Nixon from thepresidency as an illustration that “mass media have the ability to transfer thesalience of items on their news agendas to the public agenda” (Griffin, et.al.,p. 375). In other words, the public andnews consumer consider important that which the media has judged as importantthrough their focused attention. Thisattention is reflected through the placement of news stories, both written andbroadcast, as well as by the length of space and time devoted to a story, andthe frequency of reporting. Associatedwith this is media framing, which is media’s efforts to select some aspects ofa perceived reality and make them more salient to influence what the audienceconsiders more important (Griffin, et.
al., p. 380). Agenda setting has a cumulative effect aswell that can change the audience’s attitudes and behaviors.Ways that the agenda is determined is by thegatekeepers within the news organizations, news editors or television producers,who are deciding coverage, emphasizing what they deem important, as well as by publicrelations professionals who pitch coverage and provide source information formedia, by special interest groups who push their particular concern to thelevel that forces media coverage, and by major events that due to theirmagnitude demand media attention. Withthe increased reliance on news exposure through online media, researchers seeconsumers themselves as involved in the agenda-setting process through theirindividual control and choice of what to read online and they createpersonalized news environments and echo chambers that limit their exposure toonly what interests them (Griffin, et.al, 2015).Cries of “fake news” have long been made throughhistory but the ease and access of the digital environment may pave the way forquick and effortless spreading of information or misinformation from family tofriend to followers with little regard for confirmation of its validity norinterest in its truthfulness.
Today’s tabloidsperpetuate the publication of false stories but early accounts of thedistribution of fake news and far-fetched stories go back as far as 1611 whenpublishers worried less about truth than distribution of their pamphlets. Moving into more recent fake news accounts,the first modern day newspaper, the New York Sun, in 1835 reported outrageous,false stories such as the existence of bat-men on the moon in order to increasereadership (Allcott, H., Gentzkow., M., 2017). By 1922, newspaper editors were compelled to organize the AmericanSociety of News Editors as they responded to harsh criticisms coming from such influencersas NAACP President Moorfield Storey and Harvard Corporation Secretary FrederickLewis Allen, who criticized the media for sloppy reporting, biased writing, anduntruths. In doing so, the societyparticularly addressed Storey’s and Allen’s concerns for the press to becommitted to present the unbiased truth by establishing ethical standards forprofessional conduct.
These standards thenbecame the forerunner to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ, 2017) codeof ethics in 1926, which was later rewritten in 1973 as SPJ’s own code ofethics and has been regularly updated since then (ASNE, 2017). The existence of such ethical practices thatare followed and enforced by professional journalists help to elevate theethical proof of credibility, intelligence, character, and goodwill of theirmessaging.Thetiming of the development of SPJ’s own code in 1973 interestingly coincidedwith the increasing attacks of the press and their journalistic ethics stagedunder the Richard Nixon presidency, in which intimidation, avoidance, and mediamanipulation became the norm. VicePresident Spiro Agnew blasted the media and specifically broadcast journalistsfor what he described as their harsh analysis and opinionated reporting during his”On the Media” speech delivered at the Midwest Regional Republican CommitteeMeeting Nov. 13, 1969. Agnew criticizedthe media for setting the agenda, and their being hostile critics of PresidentNixon’s messaging which was influencing Americans to doubt the presidency andconfidence in Nixon’s policies. Ultimately, Agnew said, it was the responsibilityof the public as the news audience to demand unbiased reporting from the media.
The news audience was seen as sympathetic toAgnew’s message, raising the tensions in regard to credibility and theagenda-setting practices between media and the consumer (Marshall, 2014).Fromthe rhetoric perspective, Agnew’s assault on the media, especially the negativeportrayal of the character and intentions of reporters, anchors and producers,reflects early impressions being made with present-day Baby Boomers of politicalmessengers attacking the credibility of the media in order to erode confidencein the media and their messaging. Suchcriticism of journalists, denouncement of their credibility and ethics, andquestioning of their intentions and interests for the public good, could beviewed as setting in motion a pattern for continued clashes between media andthe presidency. Since the Nixonpresidency, media relations with subsequent administrations have continued tobe strained with arguments that the media is an “irresponsible interest groupthat patriotic Americans need to defend themselves against” (Marshall, 2014).Interestinglya 2012 study showed that memories reinforce news stories, and repeated exposureto false information leads to the acceptance of it that ultimately changes anaudience’s perceived truthfulness of the message (Polage, 2012).
If, as Polage asserts, the more frequently amessage is heard, the more likely the audience becomes familiar with thatmessage and accepting of it, whether true or false, then we might presume thatthose same Baby Boomers, who first heard Agnew’s attacks of the media in the1970s being repeated over the past 40 years and amplified in the present day byTrump, could become more likely candidates to distrust the current media and acceptfake news as a reality.To bypass the media as gatekeepers oftheir agenda and to become the credible messenger, the first White Housecommunication office was created under Nixon’s administration to shape hispublic image and to create direct access to the public. This public relations office not only hascontinued but has increasingly grown through subsequent presidencies. Its role is to provide a direct avenue forthe president to bypass the press and to present unedited messages directly to thepublic.
Nixon’s fierce efforts tocontrol the media and undermine its credibility ultimately led to his undoing,but each subsequent administration has strived toward its own ways to control andsidestep the media and set its own agenda with the news audience. Most recently President Obama was protestedby 38 media outlets for his administration’s obstructionism, includingblackballing reporters, withholding information until after deadlines, andrefusing interviews, all while his communication team took great strides inusing the new digital media landscape through twitter and the Presidentialonline web presence for agenda-setting to connect directly with the publicthrough tweets, posts, videos, and photos (Marshall 2014).The current Trump administration and its rhetoric,attacks on the media, castigating their ethics and doubting their credibility,is reminiscent of the Nixon administration and its vicious attacks on thenetworks and efforts to undermine their reporting. Trump insults the media by calling outindividual members of the media as well as specific news organizations throughtweet storms and statements that often echo Nixon accusations, and these becomethe news, distributed widely through mainstream media and broadly shared bysocial media. Trump labels networks(CNN, ABC, NBC) and newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post) who reportnegatively about him and his policies as enemies of the American people and helabels any unfavorable news coverage as lies and fake news (Kurtzleben, 2017). Whether true or not, the more this isreported, the more likely it will be believed regardless of the source (Polage,2012).The definition of fact, as a noun, issomething known or proven to be true.
Newsreporting is predicated on the basis of factual collection by journalistsadhering to their code of ethics of information that can be verifiable andattributable to direct sources, specific knowledge and reasonable analysis. The history of ethics within the journalismprocess has created a credibility expectation that sources have beenvalidated. This rigorous process overtime has created not only an expectation of verifiable truth but also anautomatic trust in the news source, and news consumers have translated thistrust to the digital landscape in that if it looks like news, sounds or readslike news, then it must be news (Himma-Kadakas, 2017). Fake news is problematic in that therhetoric when perceived as coming from a credible source that evokes fear andanger can lead to unintended consequences. This is demonstrated in the case of Pizzagate, in which a man from NorthCarolina traveled to Washington, D.C., armed with an AR-15 rifle after he hadread and believed an online story that the pizza restaurant was being used in achild-abuse sex ring led by Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (Wang,2017). Truth in the new information age becomesmore in the eye of the beholder as Wired co-founderKevin Kelly explains, in that “truth is no longer dictated by authorities butis networked by peers.
For every factthere is a counter fact and all these counter facts and facts look identicalonline, which is confusing to most people” (Anderson, 2017). Fake news is generally defined as newsarticles that are intentionally fabricated, verifiably false, and misleadreaders, with this excluding unintentional mistakes, or false statements madeby sources (Alcott, Gentzkow, 2017). Whilesharing facts does not equate to sharing the perception of what is a fact,sharing fake news spreads intentional fabrications that imitate journalisticfacts (Himma-Kadakas, 2017). Newsconsumers who further distribute fake news within their online circle becomemajor players in agenda-setting within their echo chamber (Horne, Adah, 2017).To be defined as fake, a story would be afabrication and intentionally written to deceive the reader.
The gravest danger here, in using fake as amodifier to news is further defined by NPR’s Kurtzleben,”News’primary function is to not be fake; it’s to pass along factualinformation that serves the public good, and the people who create it intend itto be factual and to serve the public good… putting most modifiers in front ofthe word news — good, bad, unbiased, biased, liberal, conservative — stillimplies that the news is still somehow news. It is in some way tied to thatmain purpose, of being tethered to reality, with the intention of informing thepublic.” Bycalling news fake, not only is the credibility undermined of journalists,sources, and outlets, but it also increases the difficulty for media to be seenas revealing and reporting truth.Trust in mass media, according to Pewresearch, reflects that 22 percent of Americans trust the information they getfrom local news organizations a lot, whether online or offline, but newsinformation gained from social media is trusted by only 7 percent of web-usingadults. In viewing this from therhetoric perspective with regard to perceived source credibility, this lowdegree of trust erodes confidence in not only the media as the messenger butfurther perpetuates the perception of dishonesty in the message. The consequences of this distrust may lead toa growing skepticism of legitimate news source, a less-informed public, and aninability to make informed decisions based on ill-informed assumptions.While some might define fake news assatire or humor, its definition has evolved as reflected through the writing ofPaul Horner, who was considered one of the more prolific fake news writers forhis website National Report prior to his death in September 2017.
He described his stories as political satirethat he wrote in response to things he disagreed with in society in an effortto educate people. “Ithink they have agendas. I know with my articles I will definitely seesomething I don’t like and I will write about it.
I will have a purpose and acertain reason why I’m writing it.” (Cooper, 2017). Horner’s stories were further distributed bynews sources, including Fox News, Facebook, and Google News, and he creditedhimself with getting Trump elected. Theease of the internet creates fertile territory for the proliferation of falsestories and half-truths with little accountability as a growing populationfails to see the fabrications for what they are, leading to the erosion of credibilityand trust in all media.
“Whenasked why he would write the stories he did, like peddling the idea that therewere paid protesters at Trump rallies, Horner said he assumed someone wouldfact-check it. ‘I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something Iwrite, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots,’ he told the Post”(Walmsley, 2017). Suchproliferation and the sharing of it without verification, such as reflectedthrough the distribution of Horner’s fake news by others, reflects the growingrole by individuals in agenda-setting and framing. It also speaks to the threat to thecredibility of news sources.
Pew surveys reflect those ages 50+ (22percent) are more likely than those ages 18-29 (10 percent) and those 30-49 (16percent) to trust information from national news organizations a lot. As this trust in mainstream erodes throughsuch rhetoric as Trump’s attacks on the credibility of these channels,consumers will turn to non-traditional social sources for their news. These sources can become polarizing echochambers where the news consumer finds and trusts information through theirnetwork of trusted friends and family who support their beliefs without anydegree of questioning (Loertscher, 2017).
However, Pew’s survey reflects that 69 percent of those who say that thenews from friends and family online is one-sided would prefer that they post orsend things that represent a greater mix of views (Mitchell, Barthiel,2016). In an online environment, thecircle of influence by an individual is no longer limited to personalacquaintances, but rather the sphere of influence expands to hundreds, eventhousands, due to the very nature of the viral digital network (Fulgoni,Lipsman, 2017). We can see this playingout as evidenced in Pew surveys that 62 percent of United States adults gettheir news on social media, where Facebook is noted as the source of the mostshared fake news which people report as truth. It’s easy for anyone regardless of their training or credentials toestablish a website or use a microblog to intentionally create and distributefalse news. There is littleaccountability of online content and its share-ability, since there is nofact-checking, editorial judgment, nor third-party filtering, and by the verynature of viral shares online, anyone can reach as large an audience asmainstream networks or newspapers (Allcott, Gentzkow, 2017). Thus an individual is able to set the agendaon what his or her echo chamber should think about and how to think about it.Social interaction is the key within thefake news crisis (Albright, 2017) and as this digital landscape evolves and thedigital native population ages, reliable and credible technological solutionswill likely develop to help in detecting fake news (Anderson, Rainie,2017). Until then, as news consumersturn to more non-traditional sources rather than mainstream media, it isincumbent on them in their role of agenda setting within their own circle ofinfluence that they detect fake news.
They must be critical thinkers and expose themselves to diverse andcredible viewpoints from their own to avoid echo chambers. They must avoid the stance that pervades themedia landscape as evidenced by Trump and in his rants, reflecting thatinformation with which you disagree becomes fake news in your opinion (Ribeiro,Calais, Almeida, Meira, 2017). They mustnot only determine the credibility of the source and understand the intentionsbehind the source’s message, but they themselves must consider their ownrhetoric within their circle of influence to not become purveyors ofmisinformation within their agenda-setting roles.