The Threat to Real News and Why We Need It

Media and society are threatened when people don't want real news

A picture of a TV wall

Ian McKinnell / Getty Images

Fake news is a problem, politicians and activists are to blame, and journalists need to fix it, according to the results of a 2019 Pew Research Center survey about what Americans see as the biggest issues in the country. Fake news ranked as the fifth biggest problem, trailing drug addiction, health insurance, the U.S. political system, and the gap between the rich and poor.

In an era when print journalism is struggling to survive and TV viewers are tuning in to partisan news broadcasts, the truth is losing out. However, the data show that a large segment of the public still values accurate reporting and is looking for journalists to improve the situation.

Defining Fake News

Pew's survey does not define fake news, nor any of the other issues listed as problems by respondents. Each respondent who listed fake news as a problem could have a different interpretation of what the term means and a separate Pew survey bears this out.

A 2019 survey asking whether or not fact-checkers working for news organizations favor one political party or another showed that self-described Republicans are far more likely to believe fact-checkers are biased. Fewer than 30% of Republicans said they believe fact-checkers are fair, while nearly 70% of Democrats said they do trust the objectivity of fact-checkers. Slightly more than half of self-described independents said fact-checkers are fair. Overall results show a roughly even split among those who believe fact-checkers are fair vs. those who do not.

While such survey results show that Republicans are more likely to view news as biased, they still do not provide a clear definition for fake news.

"Fake news" is meant to describe intentionally false news stories created for the purpose of misleading readers or viewers, but some people expand the term to include news stories they simply don't like.

How Real News Is Threatened

Even among Democrats and independents who are most likely to trust in their news stories, the number of respondents who said they believe fact-checkers are biased still numbers from nearly a third to about half. For a demographic most trusts the news, that's still a lot of people who do not.

When readers and viewers don't trust the news, they're more likely to be dismissive of the news and tune it out, leading to declines in readership or ratings. Those willing to broaden the definition of fake news to anything they find disagreeable are more likely to gravitate to more biased sources such as Fox News or MSNBC. Fox News has marketed itself as an answer to what it describes as liberal media bias, and analysts from news organizations including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico have stated that MSNBC clearly leans left, with the Washington Post going so far as to describe MSNBC as the antithesis of Fox News.

When consumers of news knowingly embrace partisan reporting, it becomes more difficult for objective and factual news organizations to sustain the kinds of audiences they need to survive. As well, the electorate becomes less informed and more polarized at the same time.

The Impact on the News Media

The Pew survey shows that most Americans believe journalists are most responsible for fixing the problem of fake news even though most respondents say politicians and other activists are most responsible for the spread of misinformation.

However, just as the survey does not define fake news, it does not spell out how journalists should go about fixing the problem. The problem presents extra challenges for print journalists who deal with declining resources due to newspaper subscriptions in the U.S. being about half what they were in 1990, according to Pew.

Many news organizations have fewer resources in 2019 than they did in 1990 in order to establish credibility with an audience that increasingly distrusts journalists.

The Impact on Society

Consumers of news must take an active role in counteracting the negative impact of fake news. Most respondents to the Pew survey put this responsibility on journalists, but the public was next highest on the list. While it is important that journalists emphasize facts, data, and multiple sources to support their news stories, it also is important that readers and viewers learn to become skilled consumers of news.

When sources are unclear or the supporting data seems thin or incomplete, it's important to question the validity of such reporting. This also means being responsible on social media and not sharing stories that include questionable or unsupported claims. A public that is more discerning about the news it trusts forces news organizations to be more factual and objective with their reporting—and vice versa. It is a symbiotic relationship that can lead to a more informed electorate when more people buy-in.