GAMBIER — During his presentation Monday of just over one hour in Kenyon College’s Gund Gallery Community Foundation Theater, long-time Columbus Dispatch reporter, editor and chief operating officer Mike Curtin discussed what has caused so much distrust of the American media.
His well-received presentation, dubbed “The Fall of Newspapers and the Rise of Fake News” was offered through Kenyon’s Center for the Study of American Democracy. In today’s society, more and more people receive their news from social media including Twitter as a main source, Curtin said. Inaccurate reporting results from placing emphasis on getting the first tweets out on a trending story — no matter the facts discarded or the character assassinations involved.
“In our new and lightning-quick news ecosystem, dominated by 24/7 cable TV and social media, the controversial and sensational win out over the sober, methodical and nuanced narrative” that newspapers have traditionally offered, Curtin said.
In the heyday of good journalism as Curtin said he practiced it, newspapers emphasized thorough research and sourcing for their stories. Their editors and reporters sought to be definitive sources for readers and to get the news out first — but not at the expense of being wrong. That is much different than today’s Twitter universe, where sensationalizing what triggers views and retweets takes precedence over facts involving multiple points of view, and the old adage that there’s more than one side to a story.
What results is a pack mentality where Twitter users jump on a narrative, no matter how distorted, which he said can ruin lives. Curtin said the type of journalism that made newspapers reliable sources for real news worth reading involved telling reporters “never to relish, never to take glee in something that changes someone’s life.”
He cited what is called a negative correlation between the truth and what thrives — what goes viral — online. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studied this phenomenon, examining Twitter use between 2006 and 2017. They found it took real, or true stories six times longer to reach 1,500 people than for false stories to reach the same number.
“Put another way, false news stories are 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are,” Curtin said. “The problem of falsehoods infecting our channels of communication, of course, has been with us forever. As he Anglo-Irish essayist Jonathan Swift noted back in 1710: ‘Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it. But falsehoods have never traveled so fast, so far, and with so much impact as they do today. The ‘Big Lie’ is the epidemic on social media.”
Curtin offered that he does not have a clear answer as to why Americans are so susceptible to the spread of disinformation, or “fake news,” but he did offer two factors — both long-term trends. One is loss of trust in institutions, he said, including political institutions and government, and the other “a dramatic increase in political polarization.”
The Gallup Organization and its polling found that as opposed to 1964, when 4 in 5 Americans said they trusted government, 1 in 5 said they did in 2016. Six of 10 citizens trust economic data released by the government. Only 3 in 10 self-identified President Donald Trump supporters said they trust economic data released by the government.
“This culture of distrust is toxic,” Curtin said, adding that the media is not immune, with three-fourths of those polled believing the media is biased.
This distrust of institutions and the media has increased over the decades, Curtin said, coinciding with the political party that dominates one’s local view. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected president, only one-fourth of Americans lived in “landslide counties,” or those where Carter won or lost by 20 percentage points or more. Four decades later, in 2016, when Trump was elected, 6 in 10 Americans lived in “landslide country.” And it affects and influences the choices they make, such as the news channels they watch — with Republicans favoring Fox News, and Democrats preferring MSNBC. Such news choices influence what one talks about, as according to political media researcher Nate Silver, MSNBC devoted 4.2 percent of it’s coverage last year to the Robert Mueller investigation of the Trump campaign involving alleged Russian influence — while Fox devoted 1.7 percent of its coverage to the topic.
“So our growing political divide is self-reinforcing,” Curtin said. “As Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post put it: “The country is splitting into two countries, each with its own set of facts.”
And, Curtin said the decline of newspapers and fact-based reporting has had a lot to do with that split. Between 2000 and 2016, newspaper advertising revenue fell from $65 billion to less than $19 billion — a decline of 70 percent.
“That’s what you call falling off a cliff,” he said. “Smaller news hole. Fewer stories for your money. And the price of your subscription had to go up by quite a bit.”
And newspapers have felt that revenue decline as they have been reduced in size.
So now, with newspapers in decline, there are less reporters to do traditional “shoe leather reporting” that painstakingly examines public records and follows money trails. Without such reporting, broken by newspaper journalists, Curtin said the ECOT (Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) scandal “in my judgment would still be going on.” The continuing decline of newspapers can only harm real reporting, he said, although there are organizations such as the fledgling “Eye on Ohio” that are trying to gain traction on investigative collaboration.
There is some hope on the fight against “fake news,” Curtin said. In 2017, Pew reported two-thirds of Americans as agreeing that fabricated news is causing confusion about basic facts of current events. And, young people are more adept with social media and recognize this problem more than their elders, he said.
“In fact, young people are much less likely than older people to recirculate falsehoods in social media,” he said. “Younger people are more likely to search out the original source of questionable information they see online.”
They need to lead this fight, he added.