Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith told a large CU Denver audience that “filter bubbles” – algorithms that deliver bias-reinforcing information to news consumers – allow social media users to insulate themselves and continue believing and sharing fake news.
Hedrick took part in a panel that discussed the phenomena of fake news and principal-based ethics in media communication. The March 30 event was organized by University of Colorado Denver’s Communication Department in conjunction with the Daniels Fund.
Overcoming our Information Divide
Molly Hughes, director of Denver Post TV, moderated the panel which was also comprised by Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and Ashley Muddiman, PhD, assistant professor of political communication and media, University of Kansas.
“The kind of news that is on the front page today is very different than what it used to be,” said Smith, referring to his days as a reporter at the New York Times, 1962-88. “Human-interest stories and stories about women or health didn’t make it. I think what happened is that our understanding of what news is was growing.”
Smith said this growth is largely due to an increase of women and minorities entering the news industry. “It began to shape our idea of what people should know,” he said. This change was invaluable, he added, because it began giving news consumers a picture of realities they may not have chosen to go look for.
In a time where fake news outperforms real news on social media, the panel addressed the issue of filter bubbles, which reinforce the biases already held by news consumers. These bubbles, in conjunction with social media sites and politicized news organizations that don’t have a mandate to provide multiple opinions, allow consumers to effectively insulate themselves in a media bubble.
“We went from three networks to 80 cable channels. As news became increasingly fragmented, media consumers could pick and choose what they wanted to pay attention to,” Smith said.
What historically kept these stations from offering singular perspectives was the fairness doctrine, established by the Federal Communications Commission under President John F. Kennedy. It essentially stated that if broadcasters were going to present one viewpoint or one kind of analysis, they must also present the opposite point of view or, at least, an impartial perspective within the same broadcast.
“The idea was that if you had the right to a broadcast license, then you had the obligation to try to inform people, and to do what we need to do in a democracy, which is to try to understand other people’s points of view,” Smith said.
Erosion of the fairness doctrine
The rise of talk radio, and the growth of polarized and politicized broadcast programs, is credited to the erosion of the fairness doctrine. This popular format allowed news consumers to choose what to pay attention to, further fragmenting the media landscape and leading to the social media-fueled filter bubbles.
“We have to find ways to talk together and share a common reality and trust what the other person is saying, or what the other journalistic outlets are saying, even when we disagree with them,” Smith said.
For Mantzarlis, 2016 was one of the best and worst years for fact checking. Last year, online polls showed that most viewers thought presidential debates and political speeches should be monitored for accuracy. Simultaneously, conspiracy theories and fake news outperformed real news outlets on social media.
Mantzarlis and the International Fact-Checking Network train fact checkers and advocate for the practice. While he claims that what is now called “fake news” has existed for a long time, these trends in our ability to get information reinforce our biases in a way that are resistant to alternative perspectives. While optimistic about our ability to combat fake news, he sees three risks.
First, undermining the credibility of facts and expertise will make the general population less capable of making any kind of policy decision that is based in objective reality. Second, the fake news phenomenon has further exacerbated the collapse in trust in news organizations. And third, that our online ecosystem, including social media stations and search engines, is not built to provide accurate information.
“From the moment I wake up, I have political information thrown at me,” Muddiman said. “It happens all day until I go to sleep and many people are in the same boat. As humans, we can’t take in every bit of that information, so we have all developed cognitive biases or have ways of thinking that help us figure out what news is important to us and what isn’t.”
About the Colloquia
The Daniels Fund Colloquia on Ethics in Communication is a way to bring scholars, students, and community members together to discuss some of the most salient problems we face in our media landscape today.
For Muddiman, who studies communication, it’s not just a matter of quantity of information that causes these biases, but how our social media networks are set up, and how for-profit information providers work.
“It’s not the fault of journalists that this is the way the system is set up, but it also means that on social media and on news sites as well, they want us to like, share, comment and click without thinking too hard,” Muddiman said. “If we don’t click on these sites, they don’t make money.”
Overall, the panelists were optimistic about the future of principal-based ethics in communication.
“There’s always a capacity to correct,” Mantzarlis said. “We should be focusing on how can we make those tools that we do have more effective, reach a larger audience, and try not to lose all hope in humanity.”