Relentless this unceasing barrage is not only a threat

Relentless attacks by the Trump
Administration since the inauguration of the nation’s 45th president
have targeted the press, undermining trust in reporters and in what the
mainstream media reports, as the president constantly describes news stories that
he despises as “Fake News.”  With tweet
storms and repeated verbal assaults on the news media, from newspapers to
television broadcasters and from radio personalities to individual reporters,
this unceasing barrage is not only a threat to free expression by journalists and
their First Amendment rights but also an attack on the integrity of the
information and media standards to inform the public.  Who’s at fault and what’s at play for this
occurring?  From a theoretical framework,
I see the communication theories of agenda setting and rhetoric playing crucial
roles for both media and news consumers in addressing this fake news crisis: how
do we view credibility in media coverage, particularly in light of a news
environment with such distributed ownership and little accountability, and who
sets the agenda for what is news?  Both of
these contexts will be examined within this research analysis of scholarly
literature regarding fake news recently published.

First, words matter; not just words, but
the choice of words matters.  When the
phrase “fake news” is used, who is defining fake and why is that definition
being used?  Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric
can shift between two conflicting perspectives, with ethical speakers attempting
to always provide the truth versus deceitful speakers deliberately spreading
falsehoods (Griffin et. al, 2015).  Rhetoric as persuasion uses internal proofs
created by the speakers—logos, ethos, and pathos—which appeal to the audience
through the message itself, the personal character and credibility of the
person delivering the message, and then how the audience emotionally accepts
the message.  Germane to fake news with
regard to ethical proof in this context is the perception by the news consumer
of the messenger’s credibility and intentions.  Aristotle pointed to the factors of perceived
intelligence, virtuous character, and goodwill or the intentions of the
messenger toward the audience as being critical.  With regard to fake news, this is relevant based
on the degree to which an audience perceives the credibility of the messenger
since negative portrayals will further erode confidence in the media and their
messaging.  Also of interest is emotional
proof–pathos—of how the message resonates with the audience and if the effect
is one of anger, hatred, fear, or indignation or one of mildness, friendship,
confidence, or admiration.  Within an
environment that goes contrary to pathos, it would seem that a fertile breeding
space is created in a digital media landscape for fake news to further propagate
and flourish.

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A second framework within which to
consider fake news is the agenda-setting theory of Maxwell McCombs and Donald
Shaw.  They point to the Watergate
break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters in June 1972 and the
subsequent media coverage that ultimately ousted Richard Nixon from the
presidency as an illustration that “mass media have the ability to transfer the
salience of items on their news agendas to the public agenda” (Griffin, et.al.,
p. 375).  In other words, the public and
news consumer consider important that which the media has judged as important
through their focused attention.  This
attention is reflected through the placement of news stories, both written and
broadcast, as well as by the length of space and time devoted to a story, and
the frequency of reporting.  Associated
with this is media framing, which is media’s efforts to select some aspects of
a perceived reality and make them more salient to influence what the audience
considers more important (Griffin, et.al., p. 380).  Agenda setting has a cumulative effect as
well that can change the audience’s attitudes and behaviors.

Ways that the agenda is determined is by the
gatekeepers within the news organizations, news editors or television producers,
who are deciding coverage, emphasizing what they deem important, as well as by public
relations professionals who pitch coverage and provide source information for
media, by special interest groups who push their particular concern to the
level that forces media coverage, and by major events that due to their
magnitude demand media attention.  With
the increased reliance on news exposure through online media, researchers see
consumers themselves as involved in the agenda-setting process through their
individual control and choice of what to read online and they create
personalized news environments and echo chambers that limit their exposure to
only what interests them (Griffin, et.al, 2015).

Cries of “fake news” have long been made through
history but the ease and access of the digital environment may pave the way for
quick and effortless spreading of information or misinformation from family to
friend to followers with little regard for confirmation of its validity nor
interest in its truthfulness.  Today’s tabloids
perpetuate the publication of false stories but early accounts of the
distribution of fake news and far-fetched stories go back as far as 1611 when
publishers 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 increase
readership (Allcott, H., Gentzkow., M., 2017). 
By 1922, newspaper editors were compelled to organize the American
Society of News Editors as they responded to harsh criticisms coming from such influencers
as NAACP President Moorfield Storey and Harvard Corporation Secretary Frederick
Lewis Allen, who criticized the media for sloppy reporting, biased writing, and
untruths.  In doing so, the society
particularly addressed Storey’s and Allen’s concerns for the press to be
committed to present the unbiased truth by establishing ethical standards for
professional conduct.  These standards then
became the forerunner to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ, 2017) code
of ethics in 1926, which was later rewritten in 1973 as SPJ’s own code of
ethics and has been regularly updated since then (ASNE, 2017).  The existence of such ethical practices that
are followed and enforced by professional journalists help to elevate the
ethical proof of credibility, intelligence, character, and goodwill of their
messaging.

The
timing of the development of SPJ’s own code in 1973 interestingly coincided
with the increasing attacks of the press and their journalistic ethics staged
under the Richard Nixon presidency, in which intimidation, avoidance, and media
manipulation became the norm.  Vice
President Spiro Agnew blasted the media and specifically broadcast journalists
for what he described as their harsh analysis and opinionated reporting during his
“On the Media” speech delivered at the Midwest Regional Republican Committee
Meeting Nov. 13, 1969.  Agnew criticized
the media for setting the agenda, and their being hostile critics of President
Nixon’s messaging which was influencing Americans to doubt the presidency and
confidence in Nixon’s policies.  Ultimately, Agnew said, it was the responsibility
of the public as the news audience to demand unbiased reporting from the media.  The news audience was seen as sympathetic to
Agnew’s message, raising the tensions in regard to credibility and the
agenda-setting practices between media and the consumer (Marshall, 2014).

From
the rhetoric perspective, Agnew’s assault on the media, especially the negative
portrayal of the character and intentions of reporters, anchors and producers,
reflects early impressions being made with present-day Baby Boomers of political
messengers attacking the credibility of the media in order to erode confidence
in the media and their messaging.  Such
criticism of journalists, denouncement of their credibility and ethics, and
questioning of their intentions and interests for the public good, could be
viewed as setting in motion a pattern for continued clashes between media and
the presidency.  Since the Nixon
presidency, media relations with subsequent administrations have continued to
be strained with arguments that the media is an “irresponsible interest group
that patriotic Americans need to defend themselves against” (Marshall, 2014).

Interestingly
a 2012 study showed that memories reinforce news stories, and repeated exposure
to false information leads to the acceptance of it that ultimately changes an
audience’s perceived truthfulness of the message (Polage, 2012).  If, as Polage asserts, the more frequently a
message is heard, the more likely the audience becomes familiar with that
message and accepting of it, whether true or false, then we might presume that
those same Baby Boomers, who first heard Agnew’s attacks of the media in the
1970s being repeated over the past 40 years and amplified in the present day by
Trump, could become more likely candidates to distrust the current media and accept
fake news as a reality.

To bypass the media as gatekeepers of
their agenda and to become the credible messenger, the first White House
communication office was created under Nixon’s administration to shape his
public image and to create direct access to the public.  This public relations office not only has
continued but has increasingly grown through subsequent presidencies.  Its role is to provide a direct avenue for
the president to bypass the press and to present unedited messages directly to the
public.  Nixon’s fierce efforts to
control the media and undermine its credibility ultimately led to his undoing,
but each subsequent administration has strived toward its own ways to control and
sidestep the media and set its own agenda with the news audience.  Most recently President Obama was protested
by 38 media outlets for his administration’s obstructionism, including
blackballing reporters, withholding information until after deadlines, and
refusing interviews, all while his communication team took great strides in
using the new digital media landscape through twitter and the Presidential
online web presence for agenda-setting to connect directly with the public
through 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 the
networks and efforts to undermine their reporting.  Trump insults the media by calling out
individual members of the media as well as specific news organizations through
tweet storms and statements that often echo Nixon accusations, and these become
the news, distributed widely through mainstream media and broadly shared by
social media.  Trump labels networks
(CNN, ABC, NBC) and newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post) who report
negatively about him and his policies as enemies of the American people and he
labels any unfavorable news coverage as lies and fake news (Kurtzleben, 2017).  Whether true or not, the more this is
reported, the more likely it will be believed regardless of the source (Polage,
2012).

The definition of fact, as a noun, is
something known or proven to be true.  News
reporting is predicated on the basis of factual collection by journalists
adhering to their code of ethics of information that can be verifiable and
attributable to direct sources, specific knowledge and reasonable analysis.  The history of ethics within the journalism
process has created a credibility expectation that sources have been
validated.  This rigorous process over
time has created not only an expectation of verifiable truth but also an
automatic trust in the news source, and news consumers have translated this
trust to the digital landscape in that if it looks like news, sounds or reads
like news, then it must be news (Himma-Kadakas, 2017).

Fake news is problematic in that the
rhetoric when perceived as coming from a credible source that evokes fear and
anger can lead to unintended consequences. 
This is demonstrated in the case of Pizzagate, in which a man from North
Carolina traveled to Washington, D.C., armed with an AR-15 rifle after he had
read and believed an online story that the pizza restaurant was being used in a
child-abuse sex ring led by Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (Wang,
2017).

Truth in the new information age becomes
more in the eye of the beholder as Wired co-founder
Kevin Kelly explains, in that “truth is no longer dictated by authorities but
is networked by peers.  For every fact
there is a counter fact and all these counter facts and facts look identical
online, which is confusing to most people” (Anderson, 2017).  Fake news is generally defined as news
articles that are intentionally fabricated, verifiably false, and mislead
readers, with this excluding unintentional mistakes, or false statements made
by sources (Alcott, Gentzkow, 2017).  While
sharing facts does not equate to sharing the perception of what is a fact,
sharing fake news spreads intentional fabrications that imitate journalistic
facts (Himma-Kadakas, 2017).  News
consumers who further distribute fake news within their online circle become
major players in agenda-setting within their echo chamber (Horne, Adah, 2017).

To be defined as fake, a story would be a
fabrication and intentionally written to deceive the reader.  The gravest danger here, in using fake as a
modifier to news is further defined by NPR’s Kurtzleben,

“News’
primary function is to not be fake; it’s to pass along factual
information that serves the public good, and the people who create it intend it
to be factual and to serve the public good… putting most modifiers in front of
the word news — good, bad, unbiased, biased, liberal, conservative — still
implies that the news is still somehow news. It is in some way tied to that
main purpose, of being tethered to reality, with the intention of informing the
public.”

By
calling news fake, not only is the credibility undermined of journalists,
sources, and outlets, but it also increases the difficulty for media to be seen
as revealing and reporting truth.

Trust in mass media, according to Pew
research, reflects that 22 percent of Americans trust the information they get
from local news organizations a lot, whether online or offline, but news
information gained from social media is trusted by only 7 percent of web-using
adults.  In viewing this from the
rhetoric perspective with regard to perceived source credibility, this low
degree of trust erodes confidence in not only the media as the messenger but
further perpetuates the perception of dishonesty in the message.  The consequences of this distrust may lead to
a growing skepticism of legitimate news source, a less-informed public, and an
inability to make informed decisions based on ill-informed assumptions.

While some might define fake news as
satire or humor, its definition has evolved as reflected through the writing of
Paul Horner, who was considered one of the more prolific fake news writers for
his website National Report prior to his death in September 2017.  He described his stories as political satire
that he wrote in response to things he disagreed with in society in an effort
to educate people. “I
think they have agendas. I know with my articles I will definitely see
something I don’t like and I will write about it. I will have a purpose and a
certain reason why I’m writing it.” (Cooper, 2017).  Horner’s stories were further distributed by
news sources, including Fox News, Facebook, and Google News, and he credited
himself with getting Trump elected.  The
ease of the internet creates fertile territory for the proliferation of false
stories and half-truths with little accountability as a growing population
fails to see the fabrications for what they are, leading to the erosion of credibility
and trust in all media.

“When
asked why he would write the stories he did, like peddling the idea that there
were paid protesters at Trump rallies, Horner said he assumed someone would
fact-check it. ‘I mean that’s how this always works: Someone posts something I
write, then they find out it’s false, then they look like idiots,’ he told the Post”
(Walmsley, 2017).

Such
proliferation and the sharing of it without verification, such as reflected
through the distribution of Horner’s fake news by others, reflects the growing
role by individuals in agenda-setting and framing.  It also speaks to the threat to the
credibility of news sources.

Pew surveys reflect those ages 50+ (22
percent) are more likely than those ages 18-29 (10 percent) and those 30-49 (16
percent) to trust information from national news organizations a lot.  As this trust in mainstream erodes through
such 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 echo
chambers where the news consumer finds and trusts information through their
network of trusted friends and family who support their beliefs without any
degree of questioning (Loertscher, 2017). 
However, Pew’s survey reflects that 69 percent of those who say that the
news from friends and family online is one-sided would prefer that they post or
send things that represent a greater mix of views (Mitchell, Barthiel,
2016).  In an online environment, the
circle of influence by an individual is no longer limited to personal
acquaintances, but rather the sphere of influence expands to hundreds, even
thousands, due to the very nature of the viral digital network (Fulgoni,
Lipsman, 2017).  We can see this playing
out as evidenced in Pew surveys that 62 percent of United States adults get
their news on social media, where Facebook is noted as the source of the most
shared fake news which people report as truth. 
It’s easy for anyone regardless of their training or credentials to
establish a website or use a microblog to intentionally create and distribute
false news.  There is little
accountability of online content and its share-ability, since there is no
fact-checking, editorial judgment, nor third-party filtering, and by the very
nature of viral shares online, anyone can reach as large an audience as
mainstream networks or newspapers (Allcott, Gentzkow, 2017).  Thus an individual is able to set the agenda
on what his or her echo chamber should think about and how to think about it.

Social interaction is the key within the
fake news crisis (Albright, 2017) and as this digital landscape evolves and the
digital native population ages, reliable and credible technological solutions
will likely develop to help in detecting fake news (Anderson, Rainie,
2017).  Until then, as news consumers
turn to more non-traditional sources rather than mainstream media, it is
incumbent on them in their role of agenda setting within their own circle of
influence that they detect fake news. 
They must be critical thinkers and expose themselves to diverse and
credible viewpoints from their own to avoid echo chambers.  They must avoid the stance that pervades the
media landscape as evidenced by Trump and in his rants, reflecting that
information with which you disagree becomes fake news in your opinion (Ribeiro,
Calais, Almeida, Meira, 2017).  They must
not only determine the credibility of the source and understand the intentions
behind the source’s message, but they themselves must consider their own
rhetoric within their circle of influence to not become purveyors of
misinformation within their agenda-setting roles.

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