FARGO - At first, it was hard for the panel of media experts to agree to a definition of "fake news."

Was it the "purposeful manipulation of truth or version of truth," as Jack Zaleski, former Forum editorial-page editor, put it?

Or was it "in the eye of the beholder," as Scott Hennen, a conservative radio talk-show host, put it?

But there was general agreement at a panel discussion Tuesday, March 29, at the alumni center at North Dakota State University that it's bad news for American democracy if voters can't sort fact from fiction.

"If you don't know where to go to find credible information, if you don't believe the media of any stripe is giving you credible information, that's really dangerous in a democracy." said Carrie Anne Platt, a communication professor at NDSU.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

"Fake news" as a term that emerged out of the 2016 presidential election to describe made-up news created by websites, many of them in Eastern Europe, to attract readers and make money through advertising. One example was a conspiracy theory that Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, was a front for a child sex ring that was run by members of the Democratic Party. Conspiracy believers harassed Comet employees and a man shot at the restaurant.

But the "fake news" label has also been used by some to disparage coverage they disagree with, including President Donald Trump who used it to complain about ABC and NBC coverage of alleged Russian manipulation of the election.

The panel, convened by the Northern Plains Ethics Institute, was asked why people believe fake news, whether polarization of the news media has made people more vulnerable to fake news and what to do to curb the influence of fake news.

Mike McFeely, a Forum columnist and talk-show host on WDAY radio, said people feel a need to reinforce their biases and they have so many more options today than in the past when a few TV stations, radio stations and newspapers were all that was available to most.

Robert Mejia, a communication professor at NDSU, said biases are reinforced by social media where people are able to unfollow or unfriend people they disagree with to create an "echo chamber" made up only friends and acquaintances they do agree with.

Hennen blamed a liberal slant in the mainstream media that has driven more conservative people into the arms of websites that make up news, citing what he considered bias reporting of protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and Russian manipulation of the election. He wondered aloud how many media organizations reported that consumer confidence is at a 16-year high under the Trump administration.

Zaleski said that line of argument is "part of the playbook" of Trump supporters and he suggested it was false. He said he learned about the consumer confidence story because he read it in The Forum and saw it on NBC, so the good news was not buried.

Platt said one way to battle fake news is preparing young people to distinguish it from real news. She cited a story about a fifth-grade teacher who had turned fact-checking into a game for his students and they enjoyed it so much they fact-check him.

She and Mejia suggested strategies such as checking other sources of news when you read a piece of news that too perfectly reflects your bias. "If something sounds too good to be true, it very well might be."

Zaleski said discussions like the one on Tuesday is valuable, but he suspects the group was preaching to the choir. He encouraged those attending to talk to their friends and families about the danger of fake news.