Understanding fake news in 2016: Before the truth gets its pants on*


I’ve been researching information credibility for around 8 years (and credibility in news and journalism for almost as long).  It was the main thread of the dissertation I just finished.

Meanwhile, in the wake of 2016 US election, figuring out how voters come to believe some (less true) news items over others is a topic a lot of people are taking way more seriously.

For example, the news about Trump’s popular vote “win” which spread like wildfire.

How do we explain this?

Are we a “post-fact” culture now?

How does misinformation spread so quickly?

Has it always been this way?

Is the decline of traditional journalism and the rise of social media as news source part of the explanation?

There is a lot of work to do to figure this out

Below is my effort at basic reading list on some good academic work discussing how people get their news, why they believe what they do, and how models from traditional news work may or may not apply to the social media world. People study this question in mass communication, but also within the disciplines of information science and human-computer interaction. This is a small slice of the research, but these are some articles and books that have been the most useful to me.

**Update 11/19/2016 – I’ve added annotations and hyperlinks to the list. Thanks for the feedback.


Understanding credibility in “traditional” news reporting

  • Breed, W. (1955). Social control in the newsroom: A functional analysis. Social Forces, 33(4), 326–335.
    This is a foundational sociological examination of what goes on in a newsroom. The book describes the social norms that encourage reporters to write the stories they do, and how editorial pressures are negotiated. In this era there was a “taboo” against direct publisher influence on news content – the independence (in appearance at least) of reporters was a highly-valued standard. Nonetheless, the conformity of reporters to the status quo was controlled subtly by many different social pressures.
  • Gans, H. J. (1979). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS evening news, NBC nightly news, Newsweek, and Time. Evanston, IL: Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern Univ Press.
    Similar to the Breed book in taking a social and organizational view, this study looks more specifically at the relationships between reporters and their sources – and its traditional adversarial nature. “Journalists harbor a pervasive distrust of their sources, since so many come to them with self-serving motives” (p. 130). One if its more useful points is how journalists in established beats develop relationships with well-placed sources over time and have multiple encounters over which to establish trust and build credibility. This makes for a useful contrast to 21st century journalism often limited by contingent freelancer arrangements and online interactions.
  • Hovland, C. I., & Weiss, W. (1951). The influence of source credibility on communication effectiveness. Public Opinion Quarterly, 15(4), 635–650.
    This is a classic information credibility study from two psychology researchers at Yale University. The “same” content was presented to undergraduate volunteers – one experimental group read scientific news content as if it appeared in the Soviet magazine Pravda, the other group read the content as if it appeared in Life magazine. Participants were surveyed afterward – unsurprisingly, most students viewed the Life magazine article as more trustworthy, but interestingly, retention of basic facts were the same for both groups.
  • Tuchman, G. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.
    Tuchman’s approach borrows Erving Goffman’s notion of frames and framing to show how reporters, when encountering some real-life event, will shape their description into established story frames.

How are networked and social media news sources different from newspapers?

  • Carlson, M. (2007). Blogs and journalistic authority. Journalism Studies, 8(2), 264–279. doi:10.1080/14616700601148861
    This paper is particularly interesting in that is uses 2004 US election day coverage as an illustrative case, and was one of the earlier studies to look at how blogs work alongside of established forms of media.
  • Carpenter, S. (2008). How online citizen journalism publications and online newspapers utilize the objectivity standard and rely on external sources. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 85(3), 531–548.
    Highlights the importance of routines (consistent practices for researching sources and stories) for journalists. Journalists affiliated with traditional news were more likely to adhere to normative routines and “official sources” as support for the appearance of objectivity. Citizen journalists were more likely to rely on unofficial sources and less likely to stick to routine practices.
  • Karlsson, M. (2011). The immediacy of online news, the visibility of journalistic processes and a restructuring of journalistic authority. Journalism, 12(3), 279–295.
    My favorite quote from this article: “Thus, it is difficult for journalists to refer to a ‘we get it right’ norm when the ‘we’ part is potentially compromised by users, and the ‘get it right’ part is compromised by fast inadequate news and a plethora of different voices ” (p. 280). No kidding. Karlsson suggests transparency (visibly sourcing everything) as a new norm, which, of course, then pushes a significant burden on the reader to view and evaluate all those now-visible threads.
  • Thorsen, E. (2008). Journalistic objectivity redefined? Wikinews and the neutral point of view. New Media & Society, 10(6), 935–954.
    This research is a good example of how new forms of news — in this case, Wikinews —  re-interpret existing practices and values from “old school” journalism.

The role of searching and algorithms in the trust of news

  • Jessen, J., & Jørgensen, A. H. (2011). Aggregated trustworthiness: Redefining online credibility through social validation. First Monday, 17(1).
    The fact that what people *say* about what they trust is often not exactly correlated to what they *do* when deciding what information to trust.  Proved by research! We’re much more social and less analytical then we like to let on.
  • Kleinberg, J. M. (1999). Authoritative sources in a hyperlinked environment. Journal of the ACM (JACM), 46(5), 604–632.
    This article from pretty early in the Internet area is prescient in predicting how quantities of links will aggregate to influence perfections of trustworthiness. Google was not yet “a thing” but the authors refer to the 1998 Brin and Page paper outlining its approach.

  • Pan, B., Hembrooke, H., Joachims, T., Lorigo, L., Gay, G., & Granka, L. (2007). In Google we trust: Users’ decisions on rank, position, and relevance. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(3), 801–823. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00351.x
    This study employs eye-tracking methods to demonstrate how users concentrate their focus at the top of search results, ignoring other heuristics or relevance of the links.

How do we understand credibility, trust, and online information going forward?








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