All Fake?! Why We Need to Talk About Disinformation

In May 2019, the Journalism in the Era of Disinformation (JED) Fellowship brought together eight aspiring journalists from the U.S. and eight aspiring journalists from Germany to discuss disinformation and ways to combat it during a week long study tour in the U.S.

As one of the eight journalists, there were many important lessons that I learned along the way, the most important one being how crucial it is to talk openly and critically about the challenges in today’s media landscape.

First Stop – the U.S. Capital

Our first stop of the journey in the U.S. was Washington, D.C., where the fellows connected, learned about each other’s respective backgrounds and discovered interesting insights about journalism in Germany and the U.S.

When Donald Trump began taking about “fake news,” many people started wondering whether the media in the U.S. could be lying to us. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the term “Lügenpresse,” or “lying press,” was coined.

In Germany, populists and members of the far right railed against public broadcasters and established newspapers. In both countries, accusations of so-called disinformation have put the trust that society has in journalism to the test again and again.

Whether or not this form of trust can be rebuilt was one of the main questions that made me interested in the JED Fellowship and brought me to the United States. Our first stop of the journey in the U.S. was Washington, D.C., where the fellows connected and learned about each other’s respective backgrounds. We explored the city together and discovered interesting insights about journalism in Germany and the U.S.

As journalists, the highlight of our sightseeing in D.C. was visiting the Newseum, a museum of news where we could see an exhibition of Pulitzer Prize winning work and an exhibition of cover pages of several newspapers from all over the world that were published after the attacks of September 11th 2001, which later led to several conspiracy theories and cases of published disinformation. Although the museum has since closed, we were lucky to be able to visit it during its final days.

A workshop on disinformation at the University of Maryland.

Next up – Annapolis, Maryland

The next stop of our journey was Annapolis, Maryland, and it revealed something even more interesting. There, we learned that the term “fake news” has become less common over the past months. Many journalists and academics refuse to use a term originally coined by populists to declare anything beyond their own opinion to be untrue.

In Annapolis, we attended a workshop with Sarah Oates from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. We spoke about different definitions of disinformation, how its narrative has changed lately, and where disinformation has been produced or published in the past.

What caught my attention was that a team from the University of Oxford proved that more than 70 countries worldwide were victims of organized disinformation campaigns in 2018. Twitter bots were involved just as much as shady websites, Facebook sites were shared without being verified, and YouTube videos broke records—even though their content had visibly been manipulated. Publishing lies to influence the outcome of democratic elections or harm specific groups or minorities has become a profitable business for some.

At the University of Maryland, we also learned about a rather entertaining way of illustrating how disinformation works—an online game called getbadnews.com that gives you an insight into spreading fake news and how it’s done.

Our Last Stop in the U.S. – New York City

While in New York, I found some time to explore the city too.

As with our previous stops, enlightening workshops and meetings with editors from different media outlets waited for us in New York City, the third and last stop of our fellowship. Home to the New York Times and other prominent media outlets, the city is an exciting place to be a journalist.

One of the strategies that we learned in New York was focusing on education and media literacy education to make students and people of all ages differentiate between reliable and unreliable information sources as well as how public relations campaigns and product communication influences consumer behavior. Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, the Executive Director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, enlightened us about how different media outlets are financed by various sources.

Another highlight of our time in New York was learning about the lies in testing innovative ideas and business models that focus on their readers as well as their audience and what they need.

We met two editors from Axios, a media outlet which focuses on newsletters as well as short texts. Their mission is telling stories in fewer words, so that they fit on a mobile phone screen without the need to scroll.

Marie with a fellow from United States during the National Public Radio tour.

Lessons I’m Taking Across the Atlantic

As I boarded to leave U.S. and cross the Atlantic, I thought about the many lessons I acquired during the fellowship. I realized that now, more than ever, we need to talk. We need to acknowledge that the change our media landscape is experiencing has countless advantages to offer but multiple challenges too.

I wondered whether publishing disinformation should have legal consequences and how the law could address it. Does it make a difference whether the publisher is a private individual or a media outlet? Does it make a difference whether the publisher created the content deliberately in order to make money from it?

I also wondered about objectivity and impartiality. To what extent can journalists work objectively? What should a journalist do if accused of not working objectively?

And if we acknowledge that every individual’s objectivity is limited, what strategies need to be developed or used in order to include as many perspectives and viewpoints as possible?

JED fellows at The City University of New York to attend a workshop.

The fellowship made me think about journalists and their role in education. I thought about to what extent journalists should be viewed as educators. I wondered whether they should focus on educating the public as part of their job and whether that puts them in a position “above” the public instead of allowing them to report from “within” the public. Are editors and their media outlets responsible for providing media literacy education for students or should educational institutions be the ones to do so?

In the years to come, the media landscape will change further. If there continue to be populists in our parliaments, if we are unable to make media literacy education accessible to the public, and if we fail to provide relevant training for journalists—the discussion about disinformation is likely to go silent.

It’s inevitable that the role of journalism in our society is likely to change fundamentally with time, but it must not get undermined. After all, a society without journalism is one that forgets the “truths” it once agreed on.

The 2020 JED program will take place in Washington, D.C. and New York between May 16 – 22, 2020.

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Marie Menke

Marie Menke studies a B.A. in Media, Politics & Society at the University of Bonn and volunteers as editor-in-chief for the multilingual online magazine. She has lived in Spain, Taiwan and Cyprus and has gained journalistic experience at Tagesspiegel, Westfalenpost and ZDF. She tweets at @_mariemke_

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