State Politics

‘Fake News’ or ‘shooting the messenger?’ Addressing media credibility

President Donald Trump’s repeated denouncements of some media outlets as purveyors of “fake news” in a social media age where misinformation is just a mouse-click away brought hundreds of people to downtown Raleigh on Wednesday night for a panel discussion on how consumers can find real news and the impact on the mainstream press’s credibility.

The Community Voices forum, “Fake News – the search for credibility,” was sponsored by The News & Observer and WTVD.

For 90 minutes, four panelists and an audience of at least 250 gathered at the N.C. Museum of History touched on a topic that has been around at least since Sophocles, the Greek playwright.

Ned Barnett, The News & Observer’s editorial page editor, said he looked into the history of “shooting the messenger,” and found Sophocles’ Antigone, a tragedy written in or before 441 BC, includes the phrase: “No man delights in the bearers of bad news.”

After showing a video compiled by WTVD with clips of Trump shouting “fake news” at the media and interviews with people on the street about how much confidence they have in their sources of information, Barnett jested with audience members that they had been brought to the museum on a false premise.

“For there is, to my mind at least, no such thing as fake news as the president defines it,” Barnett said. “What he’s calling fake is simply to him what is unwelcome.”

After describing a “new crisis of credibility” for the mainstream media and “deliberate attempts” by internet trolls and other disrupters with malicious intent “to spread misinformation,” Barnett turned the discussion over to the panelists.

They were:

▪ Steve Daniels, a co-anchor of ABC11 Eyewitness News, an ABC11 investigative reporter and former national correspondent for “Dateline NBC;”

▪ Rob Christensen, who has been writing about North Carolina politics as a reporter and columnist for The News and Observer for 44 years and wrote “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics,” a book published in 2008 by UNC Press;

▪ Donna Martinez, vice president of marketing and communications for the John Locke Foundation and co-host with her husband, Rick Martinez, of “You Don’t Say,” a daily radio talk show heard on NewsRadio 680 WPTF in the Triangle; and

▪ Ryan Thornburg, a professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill school of media and journalism who spent his career in the newsroom focusing on online journalism while working at, Congressional Quarterly and the Washington Post.

Among their points were:

Politicians battling the media is not new

“Conservatism skepticism of the news media is nothing new,” Christensen said. “And we have North Carolina as sort of an example of that.”

Christensen recounted his days covering Jesse Helms, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina and a Republican who campaigned against the mainstream media long before Trump stepped into the political arena. During the Republican convention in 1984, Helms’ lieutenants passed a resolution to throw Christensen out of the convention.

“People were standing on the chairs yelling ‘throw the bastard out,’ ” Christensen said. “And as I was being led out by the sergeant-at-arms, the presiding officer ... says, ‘The cancer has been surgically removed.’ 

Fake news means different things to different people

“I do not believe that newsrooms or reporters and editors sit down each day and say, ‘What lie can we make up about Donald Trump,’ ” Martinez said in her introductory remarks. “That said, even though there are some things on which I agree with the president and many things on which I don’t, I do think that there is something to the notion that stories about him are not quite accurate.”

Martinez went on to define what the phrase means to her.

“I think fake news is really about tone,” she said. “ I think it’s about the use of verbs and adjectives in stories. I think it’s about context. I think it’s about selective use at times of facts or quotes or partial quotes. Occasionally it’s about just plain old bad reporting. Sometimes it’s about commentary masquerading as a news story and sometimes it’s about story selection.”

To highlight her point, Martinez held up a printout of The Washington Post’s story about the high heels that Melania Trump wore as she boarded a plane in a pair of black snakeskin stilettos as she and the president set off for flood-ravaged Texas.

Martinez continued by discussing what she described as different word choices and story ideas for covering the economy while Barack Obama was president and now. Locally, she held up coverage of the Durham protesters who tore down a Confederate statue and said she noticed a switch from the use of the word “vandalism” to define what happened to “toppling the statue.”

What motivates journalists?

Martinez also said she thought good journalists should not enter the business because “they want to change the world.” Those who have such ambitions, she said, should take a different career path, suggesting nonprofit work or another business where they can shape policies.

Thornburg said more than 60 percent of students in the journalism school were studying advertising and marketing. The students in the news segment, he said, often were there for the same purpose that motivates doctors and others.

Daniels said at WTVD, the news team likes to consider itself an extension of the community it covers. He told the audience that he was “really excited about the future” of journalists, noting that with much more digital information about readers and what they are clicking on that news crews have a wealth of analytics that can improve their coverage.

Some want more than he-said, she-said news

Toward the end of the forum, an audience member suggested that journalism that simply builds a story around quotes from people with two opposing views without digging deeply into their words can result in an inaccurate report, especially when science is involved. The audience member used the different viewpoints about vaccines and autism as an example, saying reporters needed to read the research and be able to challenge notions.

Another audience member echoed that, and suggested stories about climate change fell into a similar category.

To that, Martinez responded that the science was not clear on that issue.

Audience members reacted with vocal criticism – prompting Martinez to say the reaction showed an unwillingness to listen to opposing opinions.

Some in the audience then responded with another phrase that has taken off on social media during the presidency of Trump – “alternative facts,” several called out to Martinez.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1