Don’t expect ‘fake news’ to disappear in 2018

In the world of journalism, 2017 was the year of “fake news” and bombshell scoops. It was marked by an ominous newspaper slogan—“Democracy dies in darkness”—and the public’s renewed interest in mainstream media outlets, a number of which received significant boosts in both subscriptions and page views. A single word tweeted by President Donald Trump—“covfefe”—became the subject of a major news story, while late-night hosts used their platform to call attention to social issues in surprisingly poignant ways.

We asked two faculty members in Northeastern’s School of Journalism  to weigh in on where they see journalism headed in 2018. Here’s what they said.

‘Fake news’ is here to stay—at least for now

Journalists will strive to be as fair and accurate as possible in their reporting and storytelling, but it won’t be enough to eliminate “fake news” from the American lexicon. “I think the term is going to be with us for a long time,” said Jonathan Kaufman, director of the School of Journalism. “Trump and other conservatives use it to attack anything they don’t like, and it’s something reporters will have to live with.”

John Wihbey, assistant professor of journalism and new media, agreed, saying “the Trump critique is extremely powerful among some segments of the population.” But he also emphasized the need for reporters to get their stories right. “Before they go public,” he said, “they need to make sure their scoops are bullet proof.”

Machine learning will help reporters break huge stories

The Washington Post, The Associated Press, and USA Today have already begun using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to write short reports and create short videos, freeing up reporters to pursue more labor-intensive assignments. Other mainstream media outlets, such as the Los Angeles Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, have used machine learning to analyze large troves of data.

According to Wihbey and Kaufman, machine learning tools will play no small part in helping reporters conduct groundbreaking investigations in 2018 and beyond. “We’re going to start seeing more reporters use AI to do reporting and draw conclusions that otherwise would take months or years,” Kaufman said. Wihbey echoed Kaufman and then offered a caveat: “Machine learning can help humans make significant insights that could change the world,” he said, “but we need to train more people to do this kind of augmented journalism.”

Social media will drive the news agenda

According to Wihbey, social media platforms like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter will play a major role in setting 2018’s news agenda. He said mainstream media organizations have begun to monitor social media closely, taking nuggets of news found in popular posts and amplifying the message for the public at large through high-level reporting and writing.

The #MeToo movement is a prime example, he said, a case in which the hashtag led several news outlets to conduct in-depth investigations into sexual harassment allegations levied against powerful men in politics, news, and entertainment. “Social media will play a gigantic role in terms of setting the news agenda,” Wihbey explained, “and the news media will have the important role of tipping nascent information from particular communities into public visibility.”

Kaufman, for his part, said news organizations would have to adapt to the sheer fact that more and more people are getting their news from social media. “The No. 1 source of news for my students is Snapchat,” he said. “As platforms like these become more influential, news organizations will need to respond to users’ expectations.”

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