Learning the news: Lousy reporting on ‘fake news’ survey

Some of the actual interesting information from a recent survey about ‘fake news’ and the mainstream media was lost in the details, writes Roger Plothow.

Last week I wondered about a survey, produced as a joint project of Harvard’s Center for American Political Studies and a private pollster, that found 65 percent of those surveyed think the “mainstream media” often purveys “fake news.”

My question, then and now, is: “What, exactly, are the mainstream media?” I also wondered about the survey’s methodology and sampling demographics.

I now have an answer to the last two questions, having received a very nice email from the CAPS program manager with links to the survey’s details. I still don’t know what mainstream media means, but we’ll pursue that later.

The polling was done online and involved about 2,000 respondents. There was a time when online polling was considered unscientific, but with telephone polling all but obsolete and online methods getting better, online research may be as good as it’s going to get for now. As we learned during the 2016 election, national polling has become less precise of late.

All that said, the survey includes some other interesting information. For example:

• 76 percent said they trust “traditional media” over social media. Why the researchers used the term “traditional media” here and “mainstream media” earlier is unclear. At least they give us a definition of traditional media: “newspapers, magazines and TV networks.” The fact that three-quarters of respondents know not to trust social media is encouraging.

• Ninety percent agreed that “there is a lot of fake news on social media.” Again, that’s encouraging.

• Seventy-one percent say they get most of their news from traditional media, compared to 29 percent for social media.

• Seventy-two percent agree with the statement: “Many of my friends intentionally post fake news or false information on social media.”

This is all mildly interesting and even a little encouraging, but the only news story to broadly emerge from the survey was the part about mainstream media and fake news, which is frustrating.

Here’s one dictionary’s definition of mainstream: “the ideas, attitudes, or activities that are regarded as normal or conventional; the dominant trend in opinion, fashion, or the arts.” As I wrote last week, if we define mainstream media as anything out there that a lot of people pay attention to – everything from newspapers to online and cable “news” sites – I’d agree that sections of the mainstream media are full of fake news. Unfortunately, the survey question allowed the respondents to define mainstream media on their own.

The mainstream media that reported on this survey did a lousy job. Headlines virtually screamed: “Two-thirds of Americans think mainstream media publish fake news.” Not a single story I could find went on to explain what that means. On the Fox News web site, the lead paragraph (without a hint of irony) was this: “Nearly two-thirds of Americans think the mainstream press is full of ‘fake news,’ according to the latest Harvard-Harris poll.”

The story went on to cite stories in the New York Times and Washington Post as examples of fake news. Again, there was no hint of irony.

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