Brandeis professors: Verified information trumps fake news

Brandeis professor Eileen McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, left, talks with Susan Cole, Myrna Silver, Ellen Adelstein and Judy Norris at the Brandeis University on Wheels event at the Tucson Jewish Community Center on Jan. 8. (Debe Campbell)

The best defense against today’s era of “fake news” is to counter misinformation with accurate information. That’s the remedy offered by two speakers at the recent Brandeis University on Wheels lecture hosted by the Tucson Chapter of Brandeis National Committee and the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Brandeis University professors Eileen McNamara and Maura Jane Farrelly, Ph.D., engaged an audience of about 130 on Jan. 8. Billed as “From Election to Investigation and All the ‘Fake’ News in Between: Media Coverage of the Presidency,” their dialogue touched on political polarization, the obligation of members of society to inform themselves, and the value of verified information (journalism) over asserted (partisan) information.

In our very busy world, we cannot be everywhere at once investigating everything, says McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize- winning columnist for The Boston Globe. “I consider myself, as a working journalist, as your representative in the world.” Journalists go to places, such as boring board meetings, and report back to us. As media consumers, we select journalists as our arbiters.

“Complex, large societies need arbiters,” says McNamara. “We create a set of standards about what group we are going to let filter that information for us, and then compare their information to our standards,” adds Farrelly. “We should select our arbiters by the reputation they have earned over the course of time.”

“Fake news is stuff that is completely made up to influence opinion, to get us all ‘ginned up’ about something, or to make money,” says McNamara. “There are those making up things out of whole cloth. In this climate of ‘fake news’ it is up to us to rely upon our source’s reputation.”

“There is a difference between intelligence, education and wisdom—and wisdom only comes with time and experience,” says Farrelly. “News organizations do make mistakes,” adds McNamara. “There certainly have been terrible journalistic scandals, but, when journalists screw up, we try to be transparent about it. We are now at an all-time low with the public’s trust in us.”

Journalism is a self-policing industry, explains Farrelly. That is because the constitution says the government cannot police journalists. “Many professions are licensed — which means they are controlled by a set of standards determined by the government,” she says. Journalism is different.

“As members of a free society, we do not want the government establishing journalistic standards. Journalists work hard to see that the story is right and to fix it when they get it wrong. If they don’t correct it, that’s when trust begins to erode,” says McNamara. New York Times Publisher A. G. Sulzberger summed up “the pickle we are in” with eroded credibility, says McNamara, in his letter to readers published Jan. 1:

“There was a reason freedom of speech and freedom of the press were placed first among our essential rights. Our founders understood that the free exchange of ideas and the ability to hold power to account were prerequisites for a successful democracy. But a dangerous confluence of forces is threatening the press’s central role in helping people understand and engage with the world around them.

“The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding, forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions. Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press. Growing polarization is jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together.”

The Brandeis professors admit the print industry had a hand in shooting itself, and its business model, in the foot. “Technology and the internet opened and the print media jumped right on the digital platform and began giving content away for free,” McNamara recounts. Once consumers switched to free online content, there was no backtracking to paid content.

Farrelly elaborates: Print media relies more on advertising to pay for news content.  With the boom of internet and the change in readers’ — and shoppers’ — patterns, print advertising, more costly than digital advertising, declined. McNamara recalls previous days at the Boston Globe where, en route to the newsroom, she would walk through rows of people on telephones taking classified advertising. “Those floors are empty now. Craigslist killed printed classified advertising.”  That led to newspaper buyouts, layoffs, cutting pages, cutting staff.  “The problem is, journalists need money to do their work … which is verification,” says McNamara. And advertising pays for verification.

It’s easier for human beings to go for the “sweetest stuff,” says Farrelly, illustrating her point with a child’s preference for Captain Crunch cereal over oatmeal. A journalist can doctor up the oatmeal with cranberries and cinnamon sugar — but there’s a limit to what they can do. “Even with the educated reader, we can’t educate them to take the news story.” As human beings, we gravitate to a story about the Kardashians over the school board meeting.

Journalism can do the job well, but that isn’t enough. Just because “the taxpayer has a right to information doesn’t always want to make them read it,” says Farrelly. “Even when they do read it, you can’t guarantee that they will read what you actually wrote.”

She describes making a conscious effort to choose the phrase “continued legalization of abortion” over “reproductive rights” to mask her personal feelings about the issues in a story. Upon publication, she still was accosted by a reader for “those liberal opinions” when she had taken care to neutralize her words.

“We may choose our words carefully,” says McNamara, “but readers are human beings and they always bring their bias to what they are reading. We all do it. But when we find a flaw in the institution, and it is our job to point it out, please don’t shoot the messenger.”

“We have the obligation as a member of society to be informed, to be active with your free society,” Farrelly continues, noting that even her journalism students aren’t reading newspapers. She uses current events quizzes in her classroom to make students read the news. “And by Thanksgiving, when they are actually able to discuss the tax bill at the family dinner table, they realize how much they’ve discovered.”

A problem comes when we fool ourselves into thinking we are watching news but we’re really tuning in to an affirmation site, says Farrelly. Those sites are designed to make us all feel outrage. When we are outraged, we can no longer speak to one another.

“The country is politically polarized right now, but it has been and it could get a lot worse. Yet, there is still a possibility to come together,” says Farrelly. As Times publisher Sulzberger says, it’s the common truths that bind a society together.

McNamara’s Pulitzer-Prize winning columns broke the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal in 2003, the premise for 2016’s Academy Award Best Picture “Spotlight.” Her writing continues to appear in the Boston Globe and on the commentary pages of WBUR.org, Boston’s National Public Radio station, and she appears regularly on Boston public affairs programs. Farrelly worked for Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta and the Voice of America in Washington, D.C. At Brandeis, Farrelly is an American studies professor teaching courses including “Race and Gender in the News,” “Political Packaging in America” and “Ethics in Journalism.” She is author of “Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity.”