Journalists: Media Must Change To Fight Democracy-Threatening Misinformation

October 19, 2023 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

The University of Virginia’s Karsh Institute of Democracy is hosting thousands of guests, speakers, panelists, experts and journalists this week to discuss threats to global democracy and what the remedies could be.

One focus will be on the media and its role in combatting – or spreading – misinformation and outright lies. That’s a task made increasingly difficult because every week local newsrooms close and more journalists lose their jobs. Two of the Democracy360 speakers – Evan Smith, co-founder of the Texas Tribune and a UVA visiting journalism fellow, and Amna Nawaz, an co-anchor and reporter for “PBS NewsHour” – shared their thoughts, concerns and plans with UVA Today.

Q. The number of local newspapers shuttering continues to rise while staffing at surviving local newspapers continues to decrease. Is there a business model out there that can save local journalism?

Evan Smith: There is no one business model that will save it, but there are several side-by-side that have a chance to.

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We need, and we’re largely executing, an any-and-all strategy to address what is literally a crisis: for-profit daily papers, nonprofit digital news sites, public radio and TV, weeklies published in and for predominantly Black communities, Spanish-language radio and TV, and so-called “conversion models” like the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by WBEZ and the transformation of the Salt Lake Tribune into a 501(c)3.

The need is too great and the moment is too dire not to keep an open mind to whatever works. Every community is different and every news organization is different. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Q. What is, or should be, the role of media outlets and individual journalists in combatting misinformation or even outright lies?

Amna Nawaz: The information landscape is noisier and more crowded than it’s ever been, and there’s a lot of bad information out there – unintentional and intentional. We, as journalists, are fighting to get our facts out in that same space, and that’s harder today than it’s ever been at any other point in my career.

The only answer to more bad information, however, is more good information. So in addition to doing our jobs – driven by a fidelity to the facts – every day, we need to assume the additional responsibility of pushing back against misinformation and disinformation whenever we come up against it, and calling out lies for what they are. That can take many forms – fact checks after political speeches, real-time interruptions in live interviews, in-depth reports unpacking why a certain lie has spread and taken hold the way it can. All this has to be as much a part of our job today as anything else we do.

Q. The number of people who get their news from partisan outlets or from Facebook is growing while the audience and readership for mainstream outlets continues to shrink. How do you reverse these trends?

Smith: We need reliable, credible, independent, free-to-consume news sources where the content is produced by professional journalists with ethics, training and standards that act as a safeguard. We’re living in dangerous times. Truth isn’t truth, facts aren’t facts and reality is a subjective construct. Misinformation, disinformation, polarization and conspiracy theories run rampant in places where the only information available is in your “feed.”

Evan Smith Headshot

Texas Tribune co-founder and UVA journalism fellow Evan Smith says, “We’re living in dangerous times. Truth isn’t truth, facts aren’t facts and reality is a subjective construct.” More focused and better journalism is needed more than ever, he says. (Contributed photo)

The answer is more good information to push out the bad. Reversing the partisanship trend is possible, but it will take a while. Rebuilding the audience at mainstream outlets depends on, first, your definition of mainstream and, second, whether those outlets are willing to commit to publishing relevant news that informs and engages and not meaningless fluff. Fluff won’t cut it.

Q. PBS is among the most trusted news outlets for Democrats while Fox is the most trusted by Republicans. How did trust in news become so polarizing, and can that trend be reversed?

Nawaz: What’s always been most interesting to me about our audience at “NewsHour” is that it’s pretty evenly split among self-identified conservatives, liberals and independents – a third each. That says to me that, regardless of someone’s political or social ideologies, they find a reason to trust us and turn to us every night.

Amna Nawaz Headshot

“PBS NewsHour” co-anchor Amna Nawaz, one of the panelists for Democracy360, says the media landscape is awash with disinformation and lies, making it difficult for many news consumers to get the straight story. “We, as journalists, are fighting to get our facts out in that same space, and that’s harder today than it’s ever been at any other point in my career.” (Contributed photo)

I think the polarization we see is when people conflate a trust placed in a news source because the work they produce is consistently and provably true over time, with trust placed in an information source because they confirm ideas you believe to be true or reinforce beliefs you already hold – whether they’re provably true or not. The former is news, the latter is not.

Q. Trust in traditional media, especially national media, is near an all-time low. How do you turn that around?

Smith: You can’t win the trust of your readers or viewers unless you’re trustworthy. Simple as that. The proof is in the doing. News organizations that are fair, thorough and accurate are regarded as such. And show your work, like a third grader in math class. You can’t expect to be trusted, especially these days, unless your process is transparent. The default setting is distrust. That’s a change. Assuming people know your work is worthy and your heart is pure no longer flies.

Q. In the past few generations, news consumption has generally shifted from print to broadcast and now to online. In the next five or 10 years from your perspective, where is news distribution heading?

Nawaz: All content distribution is becoming more personalized, more highly tailored, and in many ways, more predictive. News will most certainly fall into these same trends, meaning people will see more of the kind of news they already consume, will be siloed deeper into information lanes they already occupy and will be led further down content paths they drift toward.

This is really dangerous and is the main reason I always tell students I speak with to make sure they get their news from a variety of sources on a regular basis. There’s a pull factor at play here, and we see that in moments of big news when we see audience spikes because suddenly everyone is searching for information about a government shutdown or a war in Ukraine or a fire in Hawaii. But I think news organizations can more creatively think about the push factors too – how to make sure we’re showing up in all the spaces we know people consume content, to give them better access to our stories as well.

Q. News consumers are more often gravitating toward news outlets that confirm their beliefs rather than the ones that challenge their beliefs. Are we forever stuck in this sort-of echo chamber, or is there a way out?

Smith: We do indeed live in the United States of Confirmation Bias. The way out is making sure that every news organization commits to true balance, not false equivalency - to telling both sides of every story, to giving voice to different perspectives, to seeking out the sorts of people who don’t get quoted in typical newspapers.

PBS News Hour with Nawaz

Nawaz, right, and co-anchor Geoff Bennett, have had success in boosting the public broadcaster’s ratings recently. But she also encourages news viewers to seek other outlets as well. “I always tell students I speak with to make sure they get their news from a variety of sources on a regular basis.” (Contributed photo)

I’m not suggesting you “both sides” every issue. I am suggesting your mission is more than advocacy and letting people feel good about themselves. The job of journalism isn’t to make you happy. It’s to make you think.

Q. While generally trusted by viewers and listeners, public media has just a small slice of audience compared to network and cable news outlets. Given that dynamic, what could or should be the role of public media in protecting democracy?

Nawaz: “NewsHour” averages nearly 2 million viewers each night, in addition to those who consume our reporting on YouTube and other digital platforms. Regardless of our counterparts’ viewership, that is a significant audience.

Our role as journalists, public media or not, is to report the facts, to hold people in power to account, and to give a voice to people we serve – without fear or favor. That’s it. We do our jobs as members of a democracy, at the same time upholding key tenets of that democracy – exercising our right to free speech to empower people with information in the hopes that an informed electorate can better participate in that democracy. Every journalist, by the very nature of our jobs, is working to defend democracy.

Media Contact

Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications