The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election saw a country in a contentious divide with no political middle-ground in sight. Tensions were high during and after the election, with record crowds around the country protesting the inauguration of the nation’s 45th President, Donald J. Trump. At the height of this divide comes a new player that has, as of recently, become more of a catch phrase than a general concern: ‘fake news.’ Not only were citizens unwilling to listen to each other, they were distrusting of journalists across the political spectrum. As the American public remains as split as it was during the campaign season, how is the news media faring to inform the people?
Major American journalism institutions have long been the trusted source of breaking and developing political stories, but these last months have seen staple political networks like MSNBC and CNN become a shouting match instead of reliable media. Add to this a network president whose goal is to make political news as entertaining as the world of sports, and political pundits on the network’s payroll to make segments ‘share-worthy’ on social media, and you have a recipe for something less of a political watchdog and more of a reality television show.
This is not to say that all US political media is to be distrusted. Continued media spectacles, however, make it difficult to know if journalists are working in the interest of American citizens or video clip views.
Digital media is seeing more trust than its televised colleagues, with online publications like Slate, the Washington Post and Politico very much on the pulse of President Trump’s first months in office. Buzzfeed, too, has become a recent addition to the political news battlefront, but stirred debate when it published an unsubstantiated dossier concerning the President’s alleged ties to Russia.
Beyond well-known publications, independent, non-for-profit organisations like Media Matters for America and ProPublica, aim to serve the public interest, with ProPublica recently having a scoop on former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
A larger issue in the notion of ‘fake news’ is how easily those who disagree with a report throw the phrase out. In an interview segment on the U.S. news programme 60 Minutes, pro-Trump blogger Mike Cernovich gave insight on the ‘parallel universes’ American citizens and media are struggling to understand. This ideology brings America’s divide to a point of concern, also serving to discredit journalist Scott Pelley in the process. It is not a matter of how the facts are presented, but whether readers are willing to trust that what the reporters are publishing is true.
The environment in which political news journalism is operating now in uncharted waters. Well put by Buzzfeed reporter Charlie Warzel, ‘[the New Right media] is a parallel institution armed with its own set of facts that insists on its own reality.’
Certain parts of the news ecology are realising the importance of reporting to the people in an administration as unpredictable as the 45th President’s. But no matter how strong their reporting is, ‘fake news’ will continue to be posted on comment threads or used as an argument against facts. The level of distrust throughout the election, whether towards reporters or politicians, has created a perpetual cynicism amongst a portion of American citizens. Some reporters are publishing their best, but is it enough for some to believe?