Q&A: Dan Gillmor: How journalism can get past the 'lie of fake news'

The future of news is recommitting to the pursuit of truth and not being sucked into perpetuating misinformation, says noted U.S. journalism professor and author Dan Gillmor.

Gillmor is an American technology writer and columnist, and teaches at the Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

He’s perhaps best known as the author of We the Media (2004), a book that explores how the internet is an opportunity for grassroots journalists to test the boundaries of traditional media through citizen journalism – a concept that is at the root of WikiTribune.

In 2010 Gillmor published Mediactive, a book on digital media literacy: the idea that people aren’t critical enough about the media they read and the lies they are fed (often by politicians). This was years before President Donald J. Trump spread the notion that reporting critical of him was “fake news.”

Gillmor visited WikiTribune and answered a few questions.

Q: Now that the news is instant and on our phones and in our hands, how do you believe it has affected the way in which the younger generation understands and views the news?

A: Hard for me to speak for the younger generation, since I am not a part of it. But I think people have lots more choices of information sources and they are creating media of their own, and those are the two major changes.

You said on Twitter that the term “fake news” has “been taken over by malicious liars.” What are the issues associated with the term “fake news?” What should we be calling news that is viewed as irresponsible, biased and not completely factual?

I have two objections to the expression ‘fake news.’ First, I don’t like putting the word fake next to the word news, because news ought to be true or be real. Secondly, people who lie all the time have co-opted the expression fake news and so we should let them have it and use correct language like misinformation, disinformation, lies, errors and other things that are applied to information that is wrong in some way.

Who do you believe is to blame for click bait culture?

We’re all to blame for click bait, because people click on it, and not just young people. Tabloid newspapers have always sold more than quality newspapers. Tabloid television gets higher ratings than serious television. So, when we want someone to blame for these problems the best place to start is to look in the mirror.

Who do you believe falls for click bait headlines?

Everybody. It’s human nature. I think people sometimes learn to get suspicious of certain kinds of click bait, especially when it comes from someone or some organization that has fooled them before.

How can the younger generation help their family members and friends be better informed about misinformation?

I’d like all of us to help each other no matter when we were born. But the best way that we can all cut down the spread of misinformation is to stop sharing it, and to share only things that we have reasons to believe is true from people and organizations we have some reason to trust for doing things with integrity.

When you were studying at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was misinformation as prominent as it is now?

We’ve always had misinformation in media, tabloid newspapers, the bad ones have always practised journalistic malpractice. The existence of digital media and social media particularly, means it tends to spread further and it’s easier to create, so I would guess that there is a lot more of it now, but I couldn’t prove that.

Do you have an interesting story from a time you were particularly struck or surprised by a media organization’s mistreatment of a story?

I am constantly surprised by media organizations doing things that I wish they had done better. There are famous examples and there are trivial ones. More than a decade ago, The New York Times helped create the case for going to war in Iraq under false pretenses by being willing to spread government misinformation. It still surprises me, but everyone does make mistakes, and the New York Times did not do good journalism (in that case). Overall it did very poor journalism during the last U.S. political campaign. But it is doing better journalism now.

What advice would you give a young journalist starting out in the industry?

Practical advice I’d say, find a subject, a topic, an issue that you care a lot about. Something you care so much about that you already spend a lot of time following it even though no one pays you for it. Become the very best expert you can be in that. In many cases that’s something you can turn into a journalist’s career. The main advice is to care a lot about what you’re doing and why, and understand your own motivations. I hope that it means it will be high quality and with real integrity, which I would assume is the case.

What do you hope the news will look like in the future?

I’d like the news to be accurate and in context, useful, entertaining and part of a conversation, not just a part of lectures.

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