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Fighting fake news in the era of Trump (Includes first-hand account)

“Politics has always been a rough place,” said political strategist Anita Dunn as she spoke as part of a panel at Brooklyn’s annual Northside Festival. A former Obama advisor, now partner at SKDKnickerbocker, a PR and political consultancy firm, Dunn said, “Trust used to be important in politics. Why shouldn’t we follow the path that the president has laid out?”

While a sizable percentage of the U.S. electorate is happy to do just that, the others on the panel – and certainly in the room – were determined to pursue a different path.

While it’s hard to pinpoint when it happened – and it certainly happened before the 2016 election – most Americans believed in what Dunn calls “certain agreed upon truths” like America’s role in the world or the necessity of compromise in political life. That consensus has vanished.

“People have different theories about why the center in American politics isn’t holding,” said Dunn. She has a theory, too. Over the years, people stopped placing their trust in the government, the media, corporations, religious institutions – just about everything except, possibly, the military.

To fellow panelist Dan Gardner, the breakdown in trust can be explained in large part in a single word – the Internet.

“We went from people sitting in basements screaming at the radio to people sitting in basements screaming at everyone.”

Gardner is CEO of the digital agency Code and Theory, which has run digital promotion campaigns for clients like Bloomberg, Vogue, and Maybelline. More recently, it has begun to focus on the relationship between government and its constituents, redesigning a site like, for instance, to make it more user friendly.

There’s good reason as to why people have lost trust in journalism, according to another panel member, Nicholas Johnston, editor-in-chief of news outlet Axios.

“We weren’t wrong about the 2016 election because we didn’t exist then,” Johnston quipped. That’s because few people know what journalism is. News organizations failed to appreciate the radical transformation the Internet was bringing about and then it hit them smack in the face.

Traditionally, news was supposed to be distinguished from opinion. Stories had to be well-sourced, fact-checked and copy-edited. It wasn’t so long ago that newspaper correspondents never went on the air — it was regarded as a lowering of standards. Besides, most print reporters weren’t exactly telegenic personalities.

These days, though, even the lofty New York Times has a TV studio to feature their reporters discussing stories that they’ve covering. That’s not all that’s changed. “Now the barrier to entry is so low that anyone can start publishing… Just because it’s published somewhere doesn’t mean that it’s journalism,” said Johnston.

You can post whatever you’d like, but will anyone pay attention to you? That’s where the issue of trust and credibility come in, the panelists agreed. Mistakes are inevitable, whether they originate in the Oval Office, in the newsroom of the New York Times or Washington Post or in the corporate boardroom.

“There are so many ways to find out you’re not telling the truth,” Johnston said. Of course, sometimes they don’t find out for months or years. The U.S. Government tried to cover up military reverses in Vietnam for a decade. Tobacco companies were aware of the harm to health that their products caused years before they came clean.

These days, though, with a voracious 24/7 news cycle, and the ubiquity of camera phones, it’s proving harder to keep secrets bottled up. (Witness the White House’s obsession with stopping leakers.)

Johnston and Dunn have a recommendation in the case that the truth does seep out: Apologize. And do it quickly. Transparency and authenticity, the panelists agreed, were key to an effective strategy, applicable to politicians, journalists and CEOs alike.

But apologizing alone isn’t sufficient, Dunn said. It also depends how it’s done and whether or not the offending party acts promptly to address the problem. Dunn cited the case of United Airlines as an example of how not to apologize. Earlier this year, a passenger was forcibly removed from a UA flight because it was overbooked and he refused to relinquish his seat. In the past, the incident might not have gotten much attention, but in this case, witnesses videoed it and the video soon went viral. Initially, the airline said that it was forced into “an “involuntary de-boarding situation.” Another spokesman said that it was necessary to ”re-accommodate the passenger.” It took several days before UA’s chairman made a forthright apology.

“When you make a mistake, you admit you made a mistake,” Dunn said. “’Our technology didn’t work. We let people down.’ That simple acknowledgement goes so far to let people hear the rest of what you have to say.” Don’t start going on about your corporate values, Dunn advized: “You demonstrate your values, you don’t talk about them… Many companies have a lot of trouble getting to the next step – fixing it.”

One simple way to find out whether a company has succeeded in establishing trust in the minds of consumers is whether they’re buying its products, Gardner said. What is a company saying and what is it doing? “You need to find the correlation between the two.”

According to Johnston, as a media brand, Axios has a special responsibility to its readership. He reads almost all the emails he receives from readers, ignoring only the vitriolic diatribes. If someone points out an error, omission or evasion in Axios’ reporting, he responds quickly: “I tell them: Thanks for the feedback. You’re right. We’re going to fix it.”

He acknowledged that in the last decade many publishers have been in “a race to the bottom” because they believe that that’s the way to make money, emphasizing entertainment at the expense of hard news. That approach doesn’t help establish a relationship with the people who consume the news. (Not that Johnston is opposed to entertainment on his site as long as it doesn’t degenerate into click bait). He contended that it’s possible to make money and build a relationship by committing to solid reporting. For the sake of Axios’ financial health, he’d better be right.

There is a downside to apologizing, though, Gardner stated: “Sometimes by focusing on the mistake, you bring more attention to it. That raises the profile of the mistake even if you’re trying to be honest.”

Of course, even if you do have a strategy in place to deal with mistake, people have a predisposition to believe what they want. How you penetrate the echo chambers and break through to Fox or MSBC viewers, for instance, who have little or no interest in hearing the message of the other side. Dunn doesn’t have a solution – who does? – but she suggested trying to communicate in a manner “that doesn’t impugn the motives of people who disagree with you.” She goes on: “Acknowledging the validity of other people’s points can be a way to at least get someone to listen to you. That’s needed by both sides. Democrats have as much of a problem with that as Republicans.”

Not everyone was convinced that both sides are equally culpable. “Trump is the biggest purveyor of fake news,” one questioner argued, “How do we keep our sanity and focus? I watch CNN at least two hours a day. I’m really starting to lose it. How can we ascend out of this era?”

The panelists weren’t quite so alarmed, maybe because they aren’t watching cable news for several hours a day. It all comes down to whether you’re an optimist or pessimist. Are we on a downward spiral or are we at an inflection point? Dunn, for one, sees the glass half-full. Brands, she said, are becoming more responsible and the media – at least some outlets – are doing a better job investigating and sourcing their stories in response to an administration that often trades in misinformation and falsehoods. “We’re going to survive this too. Some institutions that are weaker now are going to emerge stronger.”

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