fake news

Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

Thinking about trust & the press: Religion-beat pros are liberals who 'get' the right?

And now, an all too familiar word from America's Tweeter In Chief: "The Fake News hates me saying that they are the Enemy of the People only because they know it’s TRUE. I am providing a great service by explaining this to the American People. They purposely cause great division & distrust."

This is, of course, a variation on his larger theme that the entire mainstream press is the Enemy of the People, or words to that effect. Meanwhile, "fake news" has become a phrase that (click here for a tmatt typology on this term) is all but meaningless in American public discourse.

Whenever a Trumpian Tweet storm kicks up, I always say that it's stupid to say that something as complex as the American Press is the Enemy of the People. However, after decades of reading media bias studies on moral, cultural and religious issues, I think that it’s possible to say that significant numbers of journalists in strategic newsrooms are the enemies of about 20 to 40 percent of the nation's population. This remark usually draws silence.

This brings us to the growing "trust gap" between the American press and the American people. What can be done to improve this tragic situation?

That's the subject of this weekend’s think piece, which is a Q&A at FiveThirtyEight, that includes a rather strange reference to improving religion-news coverage. The discussion opens like this: 

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): It’s time to gaze at our navels!!! We’re chatting about the media. Everyone ready?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): I’m not not ready.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Technically, I’m in a different field full time, academia, where we never do any navel-gazing, sooo …

micah: On this week’s FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, we talked about President Trump’s attacks on the press. Trump’s criticisms are mostly wrong, but the press as a whole (yes, it’s not great to lump all the media into one) does have a trust issue.

With that in mind, our mission for today: What resolutions do we think journalists (us and everyone else) should make to improve Americans’ faith in the press? 

Now, if you are an advocate of old-school, "American Model of the Press" journalism (stress on accuracy, balance, fairness and respect for voices on all sides of public debates), this Q&A is going to make you upset.

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Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader

Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader

Last week, I critiqued the New York Times' front-page coverage of the "Church vs. Church" immigration debate in an Iowa town.

In that post, I lamented that the pastors of three leading evangelical churches in that community "declined repeated requests over several weeks seeking comment," according to the Times.

Without a strong religious voice supportive of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, the story ended up feeling slanted and incomplete, I noted. But I stressed that the Times couldn't be blamed, given that it made a strong attempt to talk to the pastors.

Shockingly enough, not everybody agreed with my take.

Reader Edward Dougherty replied with this comment:

Mr. Ross

It boggles this Catholic’s mind that you are surprised that any of these pastors would talk to the reporter.

This blog has existed on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion. The hero of these pastors, President Trump, paints the press as the enemy rather than a guardian of the people’s right to know. And then you are surprised when that actually manifests itself in the real world.

My response: I'm not necessarily surprised they didn't talk. But I don't think silence is the best approach when contacted by a reporter. Perhaps this is my own bias talking (I am a journalist, after all), but refusing to talk gives the impression, in my humble opinion, that the person contacted has something to hide.

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No new podcast: But here's a flashback to tmatt reading fake-news riot act to Missouri Synod Lutherans

No new podcast: But here's a flashback to tmatt reading fake-news riot act to Missouri Synod Lutherans

We didn't record a "Crossroads" podcast this week for a simple reason. It appears that our colleagues at Lutheran Public Radio -- along with millions of other people in Western Church traditions -- were under the impression that this past week was Holy Week.

Thus, that would make today Easter. Dang modernists.

I jest, of course.

However, the Issues, Etc., folks did put a recording online that some GetReligion readers might enjoy hearing. It's a talk that I did this past summer at a national conference in Collinsville, Ill., which is just outside of St. Louis.

The assigned topic was "fake news," but I turned that around and talked about the forces that created today's toxic media culture, in which most Americans consume advocacy news products that are crafted to support the beliefs that they already have.

At the beginning of the talk I offered the following thesis statement, which I scribbled on a church bulletin seconds before I got up to talk, using a brand new speech outline (which is always a bit nerve wracking). Here is that thesis statement:

American public discourse is broken.
Right now, most American citizens are being totally hypocritical about the news.

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Friday Five: Big Godbeat news, Billy Graham's casket, 'sit and shiver,' Oprah talks to God and more

Friday Five: Big Godbeat news, Billy Graham's casket, 'sit and shiver,' Oprah talks to God and more

At long last, the New York Times has hired its new national faith and values correspondent: Elizabeth Dias, Time magazine's award-winning religion and politics writer.

Early last year, the Times announced that it was "seeking a skilled reporter and writer to tap into the beliefs and moral questions that guide Americans and affect how they live their lives, whom they vote for and how they reflect on the state of the country."

But one aspect of the national newspaper's search for a journalist to join veteran national religion writer Laurie Goodstein on the Godbeat struck some observers — including GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly — as extremely odd: The Times said, "You won't need to be an expert in religious doctrine."

Wait, what!?

But in hiring Dias, the Times got a skilled, respected journalist who — as the paper's news release notes — has an undergraduate degree in theology from Wheaton College and a master’s in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. (At Wheaton, Dias was a classmate of Sarah Pulliam Bailey, one of the Washington Post's national religion writers.)

Here at GetReligion, we frequently have praised Dias' exceptional work. We offer our heartfelt congratulations on her awesome new gig!

But now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

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New York Times writer: The most sympathetic sources may lie -- even Rohingya refugees

New York Times writer: The most sympathetic sources may lie -- even Rohingya refugees

One of journalism’s abiding truisms is that you’re only as good as your sources. Here’s exhibit A from the dawn of my own career, which is to say the mid-1960s.

My first newspaper job was as a glorified copy boy at Newsday, then headquartered in the New York City suburb of Garden City, Long Island. I say glorified because in addition to doing a lot of fetching I also wrote a spate of local obits when no one else was available.

I worked the overnight shift and it was on one such occasion that I called the home of a local man that a funeral home reported had died of natural causes.

Yeah, we did that, ignoring the intrusiveness of it all.

If we were lucky a relative or friend of the deceased would answer. To my surprise, the widow picked up the phone. She not only agreed to provide a few details of her husband’s life but sounded cheerful in the process. I took that to be odd but did not ask her why she sounded as she did out of my newbie reticence.

The following day, instead of running my three- or four-graph obit, the paper ran a lengthier piece on its prime news pages that carried the byline of a police beat reporter. My ebullient widow had been arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband.

Oh well, live and learn. Not every source is reliable.

I relate this (at the time, highly embarrassing) personal story as a lead in to a remarkable New York Times piece written by its Southeast Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech, who I've praised before.

In addition to filing the expected stories on Buddhist Myanmar’s genocidal attacks on it's Rohingya Muslim minority, Beech ably provides keen insight into how the media influences the conflict. She does so with great sensitivity. That makes her the perfect GetReligion subject, in my book.

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'Snake news': Pope Francis takes on 'fake news,' without asking some crucial questions

'Snake news': Pope Francis takes on 'fake news,' without asking some crucial questions

There he goes again. Pope Francis has jumped into another crucial issue in the public square, one involving everyone from the New York Times DC bureau to Fox News, from Facebook to Donald Trump's White House spin machine.

We're talking about "fake news." The problem, of course, is that hardly anyone, anywhere, agrees on a definition of this omnipresent term.

Fake news as in tabloid-style coverage (or worse) of mere rumors, acidic political fairy tales and outright hoaxes?

Fake news, as in screwed-up, mistake-plagued coverage of real events and trends?

Fake news, as in biased, advocacy journalism about real events, whether in shouting matches on talk-TV or on the front pages of elite publications?

Fake news, as in reporting based totally on anonymous sources, leaving the public in the dark on the motives of those providing the information? Waves of news from journalists who basically say, "Trust us? What could go wrong?"

Fake news, as in news that partisan leaders -- in government and in the press -- simply don't like and want to see suppressed?

So what are we talking about here? Here is the top of the Los Angeles Times story on the "snake news" blast from Pope Francis:

Pope Francis has brought a biblical bearing to the global debate over fake news by condemning the phenomenon as satanic and saying it began in the Garden of Eden.
In a document released Wednesday, Francis claimed peddlers of fake news use "snake tactics" and "disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place." Francis pinned responsibility for the start of disinformation on the "crafty serpent," who, according to the Bible, "at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news."

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No religion angle here: Think (piece) talk about drawing lines between news and opinion

No religion angle here: Think (piece) talk about drawing lines between news and opinion

One of the biggest stories in the world of American media in recent years has been the stunning decline of trust that Americans express in (wait for it) the mainstream American news media. There is some substance behind all the "fake news" screams.

The headline grabber, of course, was the Gallup Poll in September, 2016 that indicated public "trust and confidence" in journalists to "report the news fully, accurately and fairly" had fallen to its lowest level in the history of polling by that brand-name institution. Go ahead, click here and look those numbers over.

What, you ask, does this have to do with religion news coverage? If you have read GetReligion over the years, you know that issues linked to religion, morality and culture have been at the heart of many, if not most, debates about media bias and warped news coverage.

However, there is clearly another factor at play here -- one linked to the technology that journalists are using to deliver the news and how it shapes the "news" (intentional scare quotes) people are consuming.

To get to the point: When I talk to people who are mad at mainstream journalists, I usually discover that these citizens confuse opinion pieces and news reports. They don't know, to be specific, the difference between a news story and an op-ed piece, or between talking-head opinion shows and programs that are, to some degree, trying to do straightforward, hard news. They see no difference between a "Christmas Wars" feature on a talk show and a mainstream newsroom report about a holiday church-state case.

Stop and think about this from a graphics and design perspective. When you encounter a story on Twitter or, as millions of heartland Americans do, on Facebook, how would you know that it is a "news" piece, as opposed to a work of analysis or opinion?

This brings me to a must-read NiemanLab.org essay by digital journalist Rachel Schallom, which ran with this headline: "Better design helps differentiate opinion and news."

You can see several big ideas in her overture:

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Yes, we read the Washington Post story on evangelical students who want to be journalists

Yes, we read the Washington Post story on evangelical students who want to be journalists

For those who have asked, yes, your GetReligionistas read that recent Washington Post story on Liberty University students who want to be journalists.

Spoiler alert: It's a positive portrayal (verging on puff piece) of these evangelical Christian students.

As a journalism graduate of a Christian university, however, I'm not sure this coverage does much to bolster the cause of conservative believers who are training for news careers. 

Maybe it's just me, but the students come across as more interested in Christian advocacy than impartial journalism: 

LYNCHBURG, Va. — What do you do when everyone around you thinks the media is “fake news” — and you want to work for the media?
That’s the question professor Amy Bonebright needs to help her students answer. This is Liberty University, the world’s largest evangelical Christian school. Most students come from politically and religiously conservative families and churches inclined not to trust the news — and, indeed, the president of the university is Jerry Falwell Jr., a fervent advocate for President Trump, who throws around the term “fakenews” to refer to most mainstream media reporting.
So when Bonebright teaches a room full of aspiring reporters in her “Community Journalism” class, she needs to teach them more than just how to craft a lede and conduct an interview. “Now, everyone’s down on the media,” she says to her class. “Maybe you go home over break and see your parents’ friends. And they say, ‘Remind me what you’re studying.’”
A nervous giggle rises from many of the students. They have had that conversation before.

And the bottom line:

For these college students, the answer to that question is deeply rooted in their faith. Because while they might not always see the news media as truthful, they do believe in the truth of the gospel — and they think that’s a principle they can apply in the newsroom just as they do in the pews.
“As Christians, we believe in truth,” senior Timothy Cockes raises his hand to say. “Christians actually should be the best journalists there are, because we believe there is truth out there.”

Read the whole piece, and you learn that many of the students don't even want to be journalists at all — they want to work in public relations as writers for foreign missionaries. What!?

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Journalistic thoughts on the vices and virtues (and resources) of our social media age

Journalistic thoughts on the vices and virtues (and resources) of our social media age

So the Russians and others have been messing with Americans by means of fraudulent online ads and “fake news.”

Expect more of this. (The Guy here refers to “fake news” that’s actually fake, as opposed to “news I label fake though it’s wholly or largely accurate because I dispute it, dislike it and want to foment distrust and hate toward reporters.”).

Simultaneously, books, articles and media interviews warn us that the addictive powers of social media are undermining the psychological well-being of youths, on top of longstanding sexual dangers.

The latest contribution to this literature, from San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, has this jawbreaker of a title:  “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy -- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood -- and What That Means for the Rest of Us” (Atria Books). That’s an obvious topic reporters could explore in clergy interviews, with Twenge’s tome in hand.

Along with the vices, there are obvious cyberspace virtues that journalists exploit. The Web, whether accessed via desktop, laptop, or a $999 hand-held device, can quickly disgorge useful information and commentary. However, vice gets involved if material is -- well -- “fake.” A few basics for Web surfing:  

The reporter’s infallible rule of faith and practice is “consider the source.” Religious folks are usually candid so you pick up the pitch right away. But whenever something on the Web looks potentially interesting and the site is unknown to you, ask yourself:

Who sez? What ideological or organizational or economic interests underlie this site? What factors might this source carefully conceal? What’s its track record? Does the sponsor list phone, e-mail and office address contacts? Does it post comprehensive “about us” information and author IDs? Don’t assume anything and triple-check everything.

Back to virtues.

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