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Norman Baggs: Fake news an unwelcome media player
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When I started in the newspaper business 40-plus years ago, I never imagined that before my career was done there would be a national dialogue on how to keep a gullible public from being misinformed by the proliferation of “fake news.”

Of course back then, dissemination of the news was much more controlled than it is today.

Smalltown newspapers kept you up to date with the community in which you lived, state and national newspapers covered the bigger stories, television news was aired only on the traditional broadcast networks, and radio chimed in when it could, with smaller stations usually echoing what other news sources already had reported.

Looking back, it’s really pretty easy to see how we got where we are today.

As the market for news increased, more players entered the picture. Cable television gave birth to a whole new source of information. CNN paved the way for the 24-hour news blitzkrieg that anyone under the age of 30 now thinks has always been the norm.

But with that new means of delivering the news came an ever increasing appetite for more. Others jumped on the 24-hour bandwagon as cable television options expanded, and the constant need for higher volumes of information inventory resulted in increasingly frequent departures away from traditional reporting and a shift to analysis, perspective and opinion from a bevy of sometimes self-proclaimed experts and pundits.

Before long it was hard to separate the reporting from the pontificating. And as news gave way to opinion and “infotainment,” consumers formed allegiances to the networks that most often catered to their personal points of view.

It became the norm that major national news stories would be presented in different ways depending on the network, with the “slant” overwhelming the facts and the entertainment value of the presentation more important than the details. No longer was it enough to simply report factually and accurately   transpired. Eventually news consumers became divided, with “liberals” faithfully following certain television networks, “conservatives” following others.

Before long, consumers had segregated the delivery systems so that, more often they not, they were getting the news they wanted to hear presented in conjunction with opinions and perspectives with which they most often agreed.

Objectivity, long a mainstay of the most traditional of news reporting, gave way at the national level to interpretation, analysis and perspective.

Then came social media, a delivery system technologically designed to tap into the personal preferences of its users. The personally intrusive nature of social media is geared to discover what users like and dislike, and to feed them a steady diet of those things they like the most.

With social media, news consumers no longer had to choose the news sources that most reflected their personal opinions; those choices were made for them by algorithms, which assured the chasm of objective neutrality in news reporting became even wider.

With social media delivering ready-made audience of people hungry for news that confirmed their beliefs about the world, it was easy for the unscrupulous to launch websites catering to those millions who were more than willing to click on headlines that bolstered their perspectives.

Fiction presented as news has become the unfortunate end result. People believe what they read because they want to, repeat it because they can’t imagine it isn’t true, and defend it because, well, “It’s on the internet so it’s got to be true, right?”

We laugh at some of the things presented as news and convince ourselves that no one would really believe those stories, but they do. And what’s sadder is that, as a result, there is increasing evidence consumers no longer know how to evaluate the sources from which they get their information.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week on a study by Stanford University that found 82 percent of middle-schoolers couldn’t tell the difference between a news story online and an ad labeled as “sponsored content.” Odds are a lot of their parents don’t know the difference, either, which explains why “click bait” sites are so profitable for those that operate them.

You need look no farther than the recently completed presidential campaign to understand how scary the reality of the nation’s news ignorance has become. How many voters do you think made up their minds on how to cast their ballots after reading fiction presented as news and believing it?

Facebook and Google are addressing the issue of fake news in hopes of finding a way to curtail the problem. Much of the traditional news industry is doing the same, knowing that as shaky as its credibility may be, it’s going to be worse if the general public cannot discern the difference between fact and fiction in reporting.

Most of those debates are ongoing at a national level, because locally, just as it was 40 years ago, community news sources are still focused on maintaining their credibility by presenting the facts in as straightforward a manner as possible.

We don’t expect those who depend on The Times and to agree with our coverage all the time, and there may be instances where you think our take on a story should have been different than it was. But we hope through the years we have established enough credibility that you are confident you can depend on our reporting to be objective and accurate, our opinions to be honest and thoughtful, and our commitment to serving our community to be unquestioned.

Norman Baggs is the general manager of The Times. You may e-mail him at