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Weissberg week concludes with panel featuring distinguished journalists

Weissberg week concluded with a panel on Saturday, March 23 that focused on fact and truth in the age of ‘Fake News.’ Moderated by Andy Hall, the executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism; the panel featured Jeffrey Gottfried a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center; Dee J. Hall, the managing editor at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism; Angie Drobnic Holan, the editor of PolitiFact; Lori Robertson, the managing editor of FactCheck.org; and, of course, Joel Simon, the 2019 Weissberg Chair.

Gottfried kicked off the panel by giving a brief presentation on some of the various surveys and studies the Pew Research Center has conducted around the public’s perceptions of news and how well Americans are at distinguishing between fact and opinion. The Pew Research Center conducts public opinion polls that help provide facts and data around issues and trends shaping the world. They do not, however, provide policy decisions or recommendations.

Gottfried’s team hoped to study whether the American public is able to differentiate between what is factual and what is opinion and “how well equipped is the public” to do that. They also wanted to take a closer look at the growing political divide that has appeared to widen since the 2016 election.

What they found was that Republicans and Democrats differed drastically in how they stay informed. While Trump supporters were relying on one single source, namely Fox, Clinton supporters were “more spread out” in their news sources. This, Gottfried pointed out, is important because it shows how information sources are politically divided. Those divisions matter in terms of the news Americans get. After all, where Americans turn to for their news can have a very large impact on what people hear about Trump and what he’s doing.

There is a “very clear difference in the content,” according to Gottfried. Additionally, the “Degree of journalists refuting and correcting also differs” where journalists were seven times more likely to be refuting a claim Trump made if the source was left-leaning.  

In terms of ‘Fake News’, what the surveys found was that Americans, for the most part, think the information they are getting is accurate, but not the whole picture and that fake news was a rising problem at the center of their mistrust in the media.

The Pew Research Center also analyzed how facts and opinions are being increasingly blurred. After having individuals look at five factual statements and five opinion statements and having them identify between the two, they found that Republicans and Democrats were more likely to see statements as factual when they favored their side. Younger Americans were also better able to distinguish between factual and opinion news statements.

And so, it becomes important to try and give the public the tools to be able to identify facts. Both Holan and Robertson explained the background of their organizations and how PolitiFact and FactCheck work to try and keep citizens informed. PolitiFact maintains a ranking system to categorize the validity of a statement where a claim from a politician can be “True” or “Pants on Fire.” FactCheck similarly publishes articles looking at claims made from politicians during their campaigns or while in office. Both websites were established in hopes of keeping politicians accountable and providing a resource for the public.

Both noted that an ongoing challenge for the websites is what they decide to fact check. Robertson and Holan noted that many critics point out that their websites often feature Trump to which they point out that the sheer volume of claims the President makes that are questionable requires a constant check.

To conclude, Hall spoke on how the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism takes fact-checking very seriously in an effort to hold their own journalists accountable too. Depending on the story, Hall said, fact-checking can take dozens of hours. Not only are large claims fact checked but anything and everything is double and triple checked to assure that the stories they are releasing are accurate.

In doing so, journalists can make sure there is no ammunition for people to question the validity of a story.

Holan added that she found most concerning the politicization of truth and falsehood. But, she considered the “antidote” to be the continued fact-checking of all sides, a mission that all panelists remain committed to.

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