A new survey suggests that 84% of journalists believe “fake news” has contributed to the delegitimization of traditional journalism and news sources. And more than half of the survey’s respondents believe fake news is more dangerous than no news at all.
This isn’t all that surprising, given what’s happened in the five years since the phrase “fake news” rose to prominence.
It was first coined as a reference to malign propagandists spreading made-up material (mostly on Facebook) that masqueraded as journalism. Later it was co-opted by former President Donald Trump and his followers to discredit any news stories they didn’t like.
Now the origin of the term has been obscured, and respected mainstream media brands struggle every day with audience trust. This is borne out in the survey findings. Ninety-three percent of respondents said they believe, or somewhat believe, that fake news negatively impacts journalism. About 30% of respondents said the term was either confusing or outdated. And 62% indicated they were sure of one thing: The term “fake news” has become overly political. Indeed, just 6% of respondents think the term itself is even useful anymore.
The survey defines the term as “false information spread unwittingly (misinformation) or intentionally (disinformation).”
The survey of more 103 journalists, was conducted online in July and August by the Chicago-based PR firm Greentarget. This year’s report is the second annual. The results, in many cases, track to the findings from 2020.
The findings indicate that journalists are at a loss for how to respond to fake news. Most put the onus on themselves — journalists, editors and journalism organizations — as having an ethical responsibility to vet fake news and identify misleading information. That number increased in 2021 to 93% or respondents, up from 85% last year.
Fewer (70% of respondents) indicated the responsibility should rest with social-media companies, and fewer still —51% — saw that burden being placed on government.
The cascade of calamities of the past year — COVID, the contentious elections, the social-justice movement, the economic collapse— might have done a little good for journalism. Top-tier publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, appear to have gained trust in the eyes of the journalists surveyed. More than four in five answered that way, nearly 30 percentage points higher than in 2020.
The survey indicates where respondents think fake news is most prevalent. Asked which of the several choices has/have benefited most by the rise of fake news, 76% of respondents said far-right fringe groups. Asked which demographics they believe are most often targeted by fake news, 65% of respondents said Republicans, 62% said lower income, 57% said conservatives, and 57% also said social-media users. Plus, 53% of respondents said fake news was more prevalent under the Trump Administration.
The report includes a variety of illuminating responses on reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (47% believe reform is needed) and social media (60% of respondents don’t rely on social media often for their reporting.)
The full report is here.