The pace of the news is faster than ever. Making sense of it all was at the forefront of this year’s Constitution Day discussion at South Plains College.
Every year, Constitution Day is celebrated at SPC with a public presentation or conversation on important issues facing our country, looking back at past events and forward to future possibilities.
The event, held on Sept. 29 in the Sundown Room in the Student Center, was organized by the Social Sciences Department. The focus of this year’s talk was the freedom of the press provision of the First Amendment, and discussion regarding the idea of so-called “fake news.”
Leading this year’s dialogue as moderator was Tim Holland, instructor in government, with Drew Landry, assistant professor of government, keeping time and tracking social media questions. A panel of local experts gave their thoughts on the questions brought forward.
Before the discussion started, all in attendance were encouraged to take out their smartphones and tweet questions to the Twitter account @SPCGovernment, using the hashtag #1AFakeNews, so questions could be selected for the panel.
The subject that garnered the most discussion by far was “fake news,” both what it really is, and how journalists and consumers alike might take measures to fight it.
“You can go back as far as you want to in the history of the world and find so-called ‘fake news,’” said Dr. Sharon Bogener, professor of History at SPC.
According to her, this idea of generating false claims through the media isn’t a new development at all, even if the phrase “fake news” is. The term “yellow journalism” has been around for far longer, and the world isn’t only just now being faced with sensationalized news reporting.
So why the fervor from both sides of the political spectrum about this idea that suddenly seems so new?
“I think it’s uncomfortable to go outside of one’s bubble,” said Matt Dotray, political reporter at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. “It is so easy to just feed off your own beliefs that that’s become the default.”
This can then lead to a cycle of only consuming news and ideas that fall within that set of beliefs, and everything else is mentally shifted into a place of reduced credibility.
“Generally, there’s been a decline in trust in sources,” said Holland. “I’ve pulled up a couple of opinion polls from Gallup that’s been doing a tracking poll for quite some time, and confidence in newspapers has been in the 20s.”
“Those aren’t good numbers,” Dotray replied.
But unfortunately, those statistics reflect a reality for many Americans today, even if the sentiment goes all the way back to the American Revolution.
“Not believing the media is a much older look at the media than expecting it to be true,” said Dr. Bogener.
If that’s the case, how can things such as speculation or outright lies be differentiated inside a media that is generally distrusted by the public at large? Is it the responsibility of the press or the people to make this distinction?
“You have to really consider the source of what you’re looking at,” said David Williams, news director at KCBD-TV in Lubbock. “I think there’s a very distinct difference between your local media and the national media.”
Williams added, “Somebody once told me, and I try to always remember this: people will rarely remember who had the story first, but they’ll never forget if you get it wrong.”
Some could argue that putting pundits giving opinionated commentary so close to actual fact-based news reporting is confusing the matter even more.
“I think commentary has its place in political discussions, but I don’t think it should be depended on,” said Dotray. “What’s key to that is to make it well known that it’s commentary. Because I think sometimes the line gets blurred, and that’s when it becomes an issue.”
“CNN always gets called ‘fake news,’” added Dotray. “They’ve kind of become the face of it. CNN is just bad is all. I don’t think having six people arguing around a table […] is helping anybody. Facts don’t matter in those discussions. At all.”
With all the cynicism and doubt about what is real and what isn’t in the media that has apparently been around since the dawn of media itself, why is the press the single profession that the country’s founders decided to protect in the United States Constitution?
“I think it has to do with their experiences at the time, and what they saw,” said Williams. “Maybe they had the foresight to see that information is critical to our culture and the type of country that we were trying to develop at the time.”
Holland came at the question from a more practical point of view.
“There’s certainly no greater check on the power of government or individual politicians than information,” said Holland. “Oftentimes, the media is called the fourth branch of government, or ‘the fourth estate,’ and I think that’s a very apt term.”
The consensus from the entire panel was ultimately a positive one: that regardless of how effective legitimate news organizations currently are at rebuffing the accusations of being “fake news,” if readers and viewers try to occasionally step outside their bubbles, our country may just make it through to the other side, possibly even a little bit more informed than we were before.
“I think you need to read both sides of the story,” said Dr. Bogener, “and make an educated decision, rather than just jump on the train that you like the best.”