Learning the news: ‘Fake news’ survey is sketchy itself

A recent survey claims most voters believe ‘mainstream media’ are full of ‘fake news,’ but we the survey itself has little transparency, writes Roger Plothow.

There was a minor stir on the Internet the last week or so over the results of a survey finding that 65 percent of voters believe “mainstream media” are full of “fake news.”

On first blush this isn’t a big surprise. For one thing, many people probably believe all large media, from Fox News and MSNBC to the New York Times and The Times of London, are part of the “mainstream media.” If that’s true, it’s no wonder so many people believe fake news is gushing from the mainstream. Very little of what you see on cable TV or the Internet is journalism, but it’s probably still considered mainstream.

But there are a number of things about the research that are curious. For one, it’s not yet been officially published anywhere. A summary is provided by The Hill, a web site that covers American politics, but it’s light on the details of the methodology used, including the specific questions asked.

The source of the report is supposed to be a joint project between Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and a pollster named Mark Penn. Again, significant time spent researching this partnership left me wanting, so I called the phone number for CAPS. I got voice mail and I left a message asking for a call back. This was on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, so everybody might be off to Martha’s Vineyard for the holiday.

Anyway, back to The Hill’s initial reporting on the findings of the study. Here’s the titillating lead paragraph:

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans say the mainstream press is full of fake news, a sentiment that is held by a majority of voters across the ideological spectrum.”

From a journalist’s point of view, that’s pretty scary. More details emerge in paragraph three:

“That number includes 80 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents and 53 percent of Democrats. Eighty-four percent of voters said it is hard to know what news to believe online.”

Now we’ve gone from fretting over “mainstream news” to not knowing “what news to believe online.” These are very different things, of course. Or are they? We aren’t told.

Then comes the analysis from Mark Penn himself:

“Much of the media is now just another part of the partisan divide in the country with Republicans not trusting the ‘mainstream’ media and Democrats seeing them as reflecting their beliefs,” said Harvard-Harris co-director Mark Penn. “Every major institution from the presidency to the courts is now seen as operating in a partisan fashion in one direction or the other.”

Wow. I’d really like to see the data that support that conclusion. It’s a big leap from the conclusion that “people don’t believe what’s on the Internet” to Americans no longer trust any “major institution.”

I’ll let you know if Harvard calls me back.

Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.