Public Radio Journalist Speaks on Fake News


Middlebury College

Jane Lindholm tackled threats to journalism and democracy.


MIDDLEBURY ­— “We are in a perilous place for journalism right now,” said Jane Lindholm, host of Vermont Public Radio’s award-winning program Vermont Edition, in this year’s Robert van de Velde ’75 Memorial Lecture.  She laid out the need for greater transparency, diversity of perspectives and less self-righteousness as the only ways to survive this Fake News Era.

Lindholm, a Vermont native who has also worked as a director and producer for NPR, gave the talk, entitled “Objectivity in the Fake News Era,” on April 16 in Dana Auditorium.

Prominent politicians on both sides of the ideological divide tell their supporters not to trust “fake news.” President Trump’s hostility toward CNN, The New York Times, and other news organizations he disagrees with “has become a joke,” Lindholm said, but Trump is not the only politician manipulating his supporters. Even Bernie Sanders has disparaged outlets he opposes, she said, including Vermont’s alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days, which Lindholm considers a legitimate source.

Such misinformation leaves many Americans unsure who to believe.

“This propensity to discredit an entire organization, or even the entire industry, has been building over the last few years, to what is now a fever pitch,” Lindholm said. “Stories are not ‘fake news’ just because you don’t like them. And, frankly, it’s not a politician’s job to decide what is and what isn’t worthy of coverage.”

She added that overuse of the phrase “fake news” has left it “essentially toothless.”

Lindholm shifted her focus to Lyrebird, a program that claims its users can “create a digital voice that sounds like you with only one minute of audio.” The program’s generated results still sound somewhat robotic, but Lindholm said that before long, this ability to put words into any mouth will become a potential threat to democracy. Politicians will be able to take back anything they want to unsay — such as Trump’s 2016 “Access Hollywood” tape.

Another of Lindholm’s concerns is the 11 percent of young Americans who trust The Daily Show and The Colbert Report more than any other television sources. While comedy hosts try to tell their listeners that they are not journalists, they also present skewed versions of current events as apparent facts. In response to a later question, Lindholm acknowledged that comedy can do a better job of reporting specific issues. She does not see any problem with people watching comedy shows, but rather with those shows serving as their sole news sources.

“Real news is fake, fake news is real, and non-news is legitimate,” as Lindholm put it.

She added that on Twitter, no information can be verified in any breaking news situation. A single erroneous Tweet can result in the rapid spread of incorrect information. Today, in a world where 44 percent of all Americans and 74 percent of Republicans think the media is making up stories about Trump, “it is more important than ever to have the facts,” she said.

“Diversity” is another word Lindholm said has lost its meaning. She said news organizations need more people with differing backgrounds and perspectives in positions of power. Half of Vermont’s households have guns, yet 89 percent of Vermonters, including 82 percent of gun owners, say they support gun restrictions. Lindholm said she doesn’t think those voices are heard often enough. She said audiences should feel like they are “not just being spoken about, they are being spoken to.”

Yet although organizations must make sure people feel welcome, Lindholm said that they should not necessarily stay neutral. While it is impossible for a journalist to take their own perspective out of reporting, abandoning the point-counterpoint strategy that most journalists employed in the past can lead to deeper, more meaningful conversations.

Lindholm recognized that the prevalence of “fake news” can leave readers struggling to identify legitimate news sources. She offered three criteria that help determine whether a source is reputable.

First, said Lindholm, “Check the source. Do you know it? Do you know its perspective? Do you know whether this is a reported story you’re reading, with a byline of somebody whose name you can verify?”

Second, “Do a quick headline keyword source. Are other people reporting this news? Does it seem legit?”

Third, “Is it breaking news, and are you on Twitter? If the answer to either of those things is yes, please add an enormous dose of skepticism to whatever you’re reading and do some extra research.”

“We need more transparency, we need more diversity of perspective and experience, and we need less of our own self-righteousness if we are going to survive this moment in journalism and in our culture,” Lindholm concluded.

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