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Local Journalists In Conversation: What Is "Real News"?

What: Press Democrat Executive Editor Catherine Barnett and Editorial Director Paul Gullixson discuss the local news-gathering landscape in an era of "alternative facts."

When: 2 p.m., Sunday, April 23

Where: Copperfield's Books, 138 N. Main Street, Sebastopol

Cost: Free

More information: copperfieldsbooks.com

Mike Cernovich of “Danger and Play” website: “Thinking is the most important skill a human being can have. Rationality is what separates us from all other animals …”

Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes: “What stories have you published that turned out to not be right?”

Cernovich: “None, that come to mind.”

Anyone who saw this recent episode of “60 Minutes” on fake news, which attracted some 14.7 million viewers, can understand the absurd contradiction of these statements.

Here’s a Southern California attorney and web producer who makes a keen observation about the primal importance of critical thinking. And he then proceeds to offer none.

This is the guy who produced a story that Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease, a tale based solely on the opinion of an anesthesiologist who had never before examined her. He also was one of the alt-right activists who promoted a story, first aired on a white supremacist Twitter account eight days before the election, that Hillary Clinton was a ringleader of a child sex-trafficking ring based out of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C. It was a story that eventually led 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch to drive from North Carolina to “self-investigate” the conspiracy theory with the help of an AR-15 rifle. After firing three shots inside the pizza parlor, Welch surrendered after realizing what many knew all along — that the story was hogwash.

Still, when asked to name an article of his that warranted correcting, Cernovich was stumped. His contention to Pelley: Everything he publishes is “100 percent true.”

The main purpose of this column is to invite you to a discussion that Press Democrat Executive Director Catherine Barnett and I will be having at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 23 at Copperfield’s Books in Sebastopol on “What is real news?” Our intent is to offer insights on how we go about choosing and editing the content of this newspaper on a daily basis and what we do to ensure accuracy and accountability in an era of “alternative facts.” This includes acknowledging when we make mistakes and correcting them.

But first I would like to talk more about fake news.

By this, I don’t mean the president’s definition. He seems to apply the term to anything with which he disagrees, from stories about his tax returns to any discussion of Russian influence on the Nov. 8 election. What I’m talking about is the kind of fake news pushed by people like Cernovich, who profit from page-views rather than precision.

Last fall, the 45 students in my Tuesday night news-writing class at Sonoma State University sought to define this kind of “fake news,” and they came up with a definition that’s as good as any I’ve seen. They said it was: “A news report published or released with knowledge of its falsehood, or willful disregard for its accuracy, and with the intent to deceive the public.” The two key parts of this definition are “willful disregard for accuracy” and “intent to deceive.”

This would describe stories pushed by people who report such things as how the Pope endorsed Trump, how President Obama had banned the pledge of allegiance and how Trump has a cocaine problem.

These all require readers to believe three things: One, that whatever nonsense they are pushing is the truth; two, that their stories meet some professional standard for accuracy; and, three, that the reason you’re hearing this information from them and no one else is because the traditional news media have conspired to keep it a secret. Thus, stories like “pizzagate” are born.

Of course, we live in an age when people are hard-wired to believe such stories — tales that fuel emotions and confirm perceptions and prejudices. We also want to believe in Hollywood storylines about the hero who stands up against a national scandal that mainstream media are refusing to cover. This would explain why Cernovich’s stories get millions of views on Twitter every month.

But there are real consequences to such recklessness and fabrications.

As “60 Minutes” reported, the Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, which examines misinformation on social media, studied the web traffic in the key swing state of Michigan in the final days before the election. As lead researcher Phil Howard said, “The junk news with stories that had not been fact-checked and that came from organizations that were not professional journalism organizations, was about as much as the amount of content coming from the professional news organizations.” In other words, half the stories circulated on social media were fake. This in a state that Trump won by a mere 10,700 votes, less than the population of Healdsburg.

BuzzFeed News took a similar look at the number of authentic election stories that were shared or liked on social media in the months before the election versus the number of stories “from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs” that were shared. The study found that the closer it came to the election, the interactions with fake stories went up while those for real stories went down. Finally, on the week of the election, the fake election stories — such as the Pope endorsing Trump — outnumbered the real stuff.

In many cases, these stories are being pushed by individuals who also are fake. They are spread with the help of engineered “bots” that blitz social media accounts with links to fake stories, giving the impression that these tales are more widely read than they are. Facebook and Google are doing more to combat such manipulation and are putting out more warnings about how to differentiate fake news from the real deal. But it’s becoming a Sisyphean task.

There’s always more that the news media can do as well to combat fake news and be more trustworthy. But the burden also falls to readers to be more discerning.

Toward that end, here are three simple things to remember:

1. If it’s too shocking to be true, it probably isn’t.

2. If it’s something no others news media have covered, there’s probably a good reason.

3. And if it’s a story that’s more designed to generate an emotion or affirm an ideology than clearly represent the facts, it’s probably time to use what Cernovich calls “the most important skill a human being can have.”


It’s the only thing that will stop him and those like him.

But we can talk more about this a week from today at Copperfield’s in Sebastopol. See you there.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director at The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.

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