From Washington, D.C., to Warsaw, Poland, the ”fake news” term became a useful tool for populists to denounce everything they do not agree with. Donald Trump’s repeated accusations against the ”failing” New York Times and ”fake news” CNN are so similar to Polish Law and Party’s rhetoric against my newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and private broadcaster TVN.
That trend is even more dangerous for democracy than the wave of ”real” fake news. Timothy Snyder, an American historian specializing in Central and Eastern Europe, elaborated on that point in May this year in an interview for Vox: ”You fill up the public space with things that aren’t true, as Trump has obviously done. Next you say: It’s not me who lies; it’s the crooked journalists. They’re the ones who spread fake news. Then the third step, if it works, is that everybody shrugs their shoulders and says: Well, we don’t really know who to trust… In that situation, you can’t control political action and authoritarianism wins.”
Both at The New York Times and CNN, editors told us they are not particularily concerned about Trump’s rants. However, it is clear that the president’s accusations and polarization of the media world put renowned and established media in a new position. Forced to defend themselves, they employ different tactics.
One of them is as simple as it is efficient: to be as transparent as possible. High-quality media increasingly reveal more and more ”behind the scenes,” showing the whole process of creating aricles, linking tons of raw information and detailing sources. This transparency drive is fueled by the digital revolution. In the old days, it would be impossible for a newspaper to print out, alongside an article on some issue, a whole set of data used by journalists, say protocols of the City Council meetings or important correspondence. But, nowadays, all of that can be easily uploaded online. Readers get the chance to follow the journalist’s footsteps that led to creating the article.
It is not a coincidence that in the age of polarized narratives, data journalism is thriving. Websites like ProPublica, which we visited in New York, have young teams of people skilled both in journalism and computer science, who can come up with story ideas and do programming. Paul Steiger, the founding editor-in-chief of ProPublica, told us about this profound revolution in journalism: ”We are not just accumulating anecdotes and quoting experts, we can prove facts statistically.”
One of my editors keeps underlining that ”every problem is a hidden opportunity.” It turns out fake news accusations create incentives to raise the threshold of high-quality journalism even higher.