EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is from an April 27, 2017, presentation by Union-Bulletin Publisher and Editor Brian Hunt at the Walla Walla Public Library. The discussion, sponsored by the library and the Association of American University Women, was part of the Big Ideas speaker series. This is edited for length.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk about our work at the Union-Bulletin, our role in the communities we serve, and the dynamic circumstances we journalists and publishers face in today’s hyper-political information landscape.
Let’s begin with George Washington in 1777. The Revolutionary War was at a critical and controversial point, and the American rebels were seeking needed help from France. So the publication of a series of letters that left questions about Washington’s resolve to win America’s independence really mattered.
The seven so-called “spurious letters” were presented as having been written by Washington to a close friend. They included recognizable personal details and events that gave them a sense of legitimacy. They left readers feeling sympathetic for Washington, even as they also implied that he was overwhelmed and full of self-doubt about the outcome of the revolution he was leading.
These letters were widely published and discussed. They were also fiction — fake news.
What we today refer to as fake news is as old as communication itself. It has come from the political right and the left. It is sophisticated or simple. And because as humans we are hard-wired to want to believe, it can be very successful.
What is newer historically are the advertiser-driven platforms and technologies that now enable information to accelerate and expand without regard to any formal vetting or verification.
Public relations is a mature industry, with a scientific storehouse of successful persuasion techniques.
Advertising literally is everywhere — every day we are exposed to some 5,000 advertising messages. As an industry, advertising has never had more user data with which to persuade us.
And politics today is especially tribal and divisive, from all sides. Politics too is a mature and increasingly aggressive industry with troves of data to support its messaging machines.
It’s a perfect storm of sophisticated user data, relatively cheap technology and know-how, and vast sums of available money and power.
So the impact and the pervasiveness of fake news should not be surprising.
Truth matters less today than reach. The largest information companies in the world today depend upon their ability to get advertising in front of our eyeballs. The content that wraps around these ads doesn’t need to be true, it just needs to be able to entice us to click.
And we really click, motivated in part by our very human desire to improve ourselves and to belong to something.
Right or wrong. Left or right. Human nature.
Because advertising revenue exclusively funds them, platforms like Facebook and Google succeed by collecting and selling very sophisticated user information about what we like, what we don’t like, what we open, what we ignore.
They know what persuades us as individuals and they can easily help us sort ourselves into very small groups of like-minded groups.
What could go wrong?
I don’t want to paint social media as the enemy of truth. It’s not — though a business model focused exclusively on serving ads based on our likes does present challenges in terms of what is true and what is merely effective.
As humans, we are prone to persuasion. That’s why advertising works. That’s why we all gravitate to information that feels like it fits our perspective. It’s human nature.
Fake news stories — like spam emails that preceded them — work because they can cheaply exploit known human behavior. Advertising networks need eyeballs and our eyeballs react to popular content.
Some of the wildest fake news around the election was propagated simply to profit from these networks. People made real money from the ads that online networks served with fake stories.
In many ways, the fake news environment we wrestle with today is a consequence of this tipping point. Content is everywhere, growing faster than it ever did, largely without qualitative guardrails. It’s cheap to produce. And distribution of this content is better targeted to an individual’s likes and wants than it ever has been before.
The fake letters of George Washington were published in a handful of newspapers, as were the eventual denials of their truthfulness. I don’t need to tell you how differently that works today.
Between Washington’s time and today, news gathering and dissemination have not been static.
Newspapers were the dominant mass communication vehicle as our country was being formed. Freedom of the press is enshrined in our First Amendment to the Constitution because our country’s Founders understood that the free flow of independent news and information is necessary for a healthy democracy.
The free press took on the mantle of the Fourth Estate, and journalists were increasingly relied upon to provide truth and understanding for our citizens. To be watchdogs against corruption and graft.
This is not to say that journalism, as it was practiced then, is the same as we now understand it.
The first journalism degree was offered in 1908 at the University of Missouri — 131 years after the fake George Washington letters were published.
Through the last century, the practice of journalism was increasingly formalized around a set of principles that included both broad areas of learning and an objective rigor to tell the truth.
As journalists, we are trained in critical thinking. In looking at all sides of an issue. In separating our personal feelings from the work of telling true and balanced stories that enable readers to make up their own mind. The rise of objective journalism had a dramatic impact on the news media – and in our world.
Newspapers up until that point were often openly, proudly partisan organs that filtered and interpreted information to satisfy the specific audiences their advertisers depended on.
The term Yellow Journalism was coined late in the 1800s to describe a particularly zealous, sensational news outlet. Scandal was big news. Celebrity was worshipped. Photos and illustrations became more prominent. Headlines grew larger and more emphatic.
They were aggressive self-promoters. They often were sympathetic to underdogs and to those fighting against the system.
As professional journalism grew in strength, newspapers, and then radio and television, also changed. Commentary and perspective were labeled as such. There was a shared assumption that the news as reported was largely to be trusted.
The advent of the advertiser-funded internet particularly, and the scale at which broadcast news outlets proliferated and extended themselves, is a new wild west of information dissemination.
So how do we navigate the vast amounts of information we encounter to ensure that what we read and what we share are true?
The good and the bad is that it really is up to us as individuals to make sure we’re seeing and sharing real information.
The News Media Alliance (newsmediaalliance.org), which has troves of good information online, suggests the Three-S rule: Stop, Search, Subscribe.
Be suspicious before you click on sensational headlines. If it confirms your suspicions, be especially critical.
Check the source to make sure it’s trustworthy. Does it come from a vetted journalistic organization? Have you heard of it before? Confirm the information with reliable fact-checking organizations like snopes.com.
And my favorite — subscribe to your local newspaper. If you’re fortunate to live where there are more than one, subscribe to them all.
I would add to this list the opportunity we all have to read information that is counter to our thinking. If you lean left, look for stories in reputable right-leaning sources. If you lean right, look for challenging stories from another perspective.
The impact of fake news and the social media isolation that drives it impacts us all. For those of us who work at the Union-Bulletin and similar community newspapers, it matters.
Our history is the history of good community newspapers everywhere. Providing a common, local marketplace for ideas and for advertising has been good business.
This enables us to pay for journalists and editors who in turn provide meaningful, independent journalism, news and information to the majority of people in the Walla Walla Valley.
Today, even with substantially more ways for people to advertise and to get information, the Union-Bulletin remains the most influential local news and information provider.
We are unique in our ability to provide a common, shared community experience within our Valley.
The U-B is also a significant philanthropic force in the Valley. Our business no longer supports the large cash donations of yesteryear, though we still provide significant marketing support and coverage to numerous nonprofits.
We work hard to highlight strong, local community efforts in our news coverage. We regularly encourage these efforts through our daily editorials and guest columns.
We believe that our work matters — that the U-B is a vital part of our community. I hope you believe that as well.
Still, community newspapers are more fragile than ever before. Revenues are challenged. Reader attention is challenged.
Fake news — and the increasing tribal isolation that supports it — has a direct impact on community newspapers like the U-B. This means it also directly impacts our local communities.
I mentioned earlier the idea that we are at a tipping point and that fake news is an unanticipated outcome of vast, cheap and smart content distribution systems.
With today’s exciting expansion of public voices, we’re realizing again that our desire to believe in something shared is sometimes more enticing than what may or may not be true.
We have facts. Alternative facts. The president of the United States declares the press the enemy of the people. In our Valley, we drive by billboards that vilify our reporters and editors.
Fake news accusations are now common for stories that don’t suit a particular audience, true or not.
We’re increasingly intolerant about information we don’t like, for sides of the argument that disagree with our side.
For community newspapers such as the U-B, this loss of collective understanding and tolerance threatens the very sense of a shared and diverse community.
I keep a file in my office of reader complaints. Traditionally, this has been a smallish file with specific issues – we misspelled a name in a story, we don’t cover enough Little League, we moved Dear Abby from page 2, these kinds of things.
That began to change last summer when we were increasingly fielding what at first seemed strange outliers. A subscriber cancelled her subscription because, she said, we refused to report on a debunked story that Clinton was involved with a sex-slave operation from a Washington, D.C., restaurant.
It’s not true, I explained. Yes it is, she told me. I read it.
We took shots — often angry shots — for not including more coverage of real or imagined Clinton scandals. We took shots for not taking Trump seriously. We took shots for taking Trump seriously.
After Trump won the election, we heard from a number of readers who were incensed that our political cartoons disparaged him. Cartoons.
I began hearing from readers who seemed confused about what was published as a news story and what was published as a personal opinion column or an editorial. Definitions that newspapers have relied on for decades are suddenly not widely understood.
This became a small wave of complaints that national political coverage in the U-B did not match reader expectations — they knew things we didn’t include, and they often disbelieved what we did include.
There are many conversations. I’ve been challenged on why we include people of color in our newspaper. I’ve heard from readers who question why, when two-thirds of our region voted for Trump, the U-B would ever publish anything remotely critical of his presidency.
I learn things in these conversations. Most notably, the people I speak with are not unaccomplished, not unintelligent, not uncaring. We know these people. You know these people. Fake news and the isolated intolerance that can feed it gets to us all.
A positive trend
At the same time, we get mostly positive feedback on local political stories — the Where’s Cathy? rally is one example, as is the story we did after the election speaking with Trump supporters.
This should give us hope for our community — we are more tolerant of people we know, even as we are less tolerant of more abstract national political arguments.
I hope this is a positive trend. Subscribers are an increasingly important source of revenue in the community newspaper business. Likewise, meeting the needs of our subscribers is more important than ever.
We also have an obligation to independent journalism. To tell true stories. To pay our reporters and editors a living wage for the skills and work they provide in our communities.
Newspapers are generalists and this too is counter to the social media feeds and political broadcasting that many of us engage with. Our intention is to provide a balance of true information from which we trust our readers will use as they will. This requires from all of us a tolerance, an ability to engage with new information.
It also requires a relationship with our readers that we trust each other. That’s why in today’s atmosphere of fake news and divisive politics, we really need independent and community journalism.
When it’s this easy to never encounter disagreeable information, it’s more important than ever that we challenge ourselves to keep an open mind.
Community newspapers like ours work hard to present a wide variety of true stories and honest opinion without preconceived bias. Our intention is that this mix provides readers with a sense of our community, our country, our challenges, our tragedies and our successes.
We all wish this was more uniting than dividing.
The headwinds community newspapers face are not just about business competition, or models of communication. Or the internet. They are not just about the past and the future. They threaten to eat away at the core of what makes us communities.
All the work the U-B does in the community requires us to maintain a reasonable level of financial success. When we’re successful, we get to support and encourage the social service and nonprofits our communities increasingly rely upon to be helpful.
I’ve said before that strong communities support good community newspapers, and strong community newspapers support good communities. That’s the best way I know to show how much we depend upon each other. How much benefit we can together achieve.
For that, I hope you are all subscribers, that you encourage others to be subscribers. And that you continue to challenge us to be the best community newspaper we can be.
Let’s continue to work together to ensure our Valley stays strong and well-informed.
Reach Brian Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-526-8331.