In 2006, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) released a study showing that PBS Newshour—despite its branding as a completely “even-handed” news program, committed to including all voices—was not as fair and inclusive as it says. This study, and all of FAIR’s work, is intensely focused on holding news outlets’ words to truth, and holding their branding to facts. But time and time again, people and organizations in power, from presidents to media conglomerates, have shown that presentation—branding—is more important to much of the American public than the proven truth.
The satire news show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver spoke to this in one of their episodes during President Donald Trump’s campaign against Hillary Clinton. Oliver pulled multiple examples of lies that Trump had told, cited fact-checking reports about those lies, and then showed Trump supporters’ response to those reports. What Oliver concluded is that, every time, the feeling (read: branding) that a politician is able to give their voters trumps the facts of what they're saying.
This problem is only a small subset of a larger issue: It’s getting easier and easier to lie. Radiolab, the science and storytelling podcast from WNYC Studios, proved this in their July episode “Breaking News” about new software that will make it easier and easier to fabricate people’s voices and faces.
There are a few driving forces that have caused these disparities between truth and branding, and between reality and constructed reality. One factor is that the development of the internet and technology has created a need for consumers to be more and more media literate—but our education system has not shifted to meet that need.
Now what we—as responsible media consumers, and the American public as a whole—need is not only an army of watchdogs who are dedicated to exposing powerful people’s lies. This, of course, is always something we’ll need. But what we need more, now, is a new tool, process, or set of guidelines for helping consumers analyze powerful people and organizations’ words, and see the actual truth behind them.
We need a new system for holding people and organizations accountable for their words in a way that meets the format and speed of today’s internet and media landscape.