Fake News and Real Gatekeepers

Image result for pope francis trump fake newsIn the wake of Donald Trump’s election, fake news has become a major news topic (note the irony). These are fabricated stories published on the web, designed to stimulate traffic with sensational headlines and claims. The sites presenting fake news resemble traditional media in name and design. Their content is easily shared on social media.

Fake news epitomizes the post-truth era, a social and political climate in which emotion and pre-existing belief outweigh independently collected and verified facts. Amid the victories of Trump and Brexit, Oxford Dictionaries selected “post-truth” as its international word of the year. Concern over the effect of fake news on public opinion and actions surged when a gunman stormed a pizzeria falsely identified as a front for a child sex ring led by Hillary Clinton.

Publishers of fake news have multiple possible motives:

Fake news is not a monolith, nor is it the product of a oligarchy as traditional media companies have been considered. Fake news is a decentralized consequence of the Internet, which has greatly simplified the broadcasting of content and fragmented its consumption. Tabloid stories, propaganda and conspiracy theories are not new. Their presentation and distribution, however, has undergone a revolution in the past two decades. The Internet, the heralded “fact checker,” has become the great source of disinformation.

In their book Media Now, Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport explore the theories that describe the relationship between society and media. The gatekeeping theory establishes the deliberate efforts of editors, producers and journalists in mainstream media outlets to select and shape news stories. New media bypass such gatekeepers who would enforce accuracy and objectivity among their functions. Concurrently, public trust in mass media has hit an all-time low. Detractors of mainstream media consider its gatekeepers fallible and biased, requiring web-based watchdogs for balance. Two landmark cases illustrate this shift:

Three election cycles after the mainstream media debacle that forced Dan Rather’s retirement, many are rethinking the freewheeling approach of Internet journalism and commentary. Such retrenchment is by no means certain. Mainstream media, and the polling they reported, failed to anticipate Trump’s win. Newspaper editorial boards overwhelmingly denounced Trump, including those of several major conservative publications and the historically neutral USA Today. All this suggests mainstream media being out of step, a perception that will continue to invigorate fake news.

Jeffrey Herbst, president/CEO of Newseum, insists that the media gatekeeper is not extinct; the job has moved from media producers to media consumers, the “demand side.” That means us. Factcheck.org offers guidelines for spotting fake news. It takes some work. The ability to filter, assess, and benefit from media is known as media literacy. Straubhaar, LaRose and Davenport make the case for such active involvement with media:

Instead of simply letting media bombard you with a cacophony of messages, you can learn to use different media effectively to obtain the information you need to make productive decisions. You can be an active seeker of information and an active participant, contributing to the market place of ideas and a democratic form of governance.

As the demand side, will we demand enough of our institutions, our leaders, our media old and new, and ourselves to neutralize fake news?

Posted in Media, Public Relations, Social Media, Web Content | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Clinton and Pollsters Lose

On November 8, Hillary Clinton lost her bid for president of the United States. “Shocking” and “upset” were some descriptions of the defeat. National and state polls had put Clinton ahead for most of the race. News media conveyed the certitude of the polls, revealing an axis of inaccuracy as state after state fell into Donald Trump’s column.

This is not the first mass failure to foresee the next president. In the 1948 election, New York governor Thomas Dewey was considered the favorite over incumbent Harry Truman, with major media reinforcing polls’ conclusions. This led to one of most famous images in American political history as a triumphant Truman held up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with its errant headline on election night.

How could so many polls have been so wrong? Errors in both methodology and the data gathered are the likely reasons, mistakes that can affect political polling as well as research for marketing and public relations. Issues stem from the necessity to examine a small portion (the sample) of the electorate/marketplace/public (the target population) to draw overall conclusions.

Research errors can include:

  • Sampling Error–the sample does not accurately represent the target population.
  • Frame Error–the criteria for selecting the sample are inaccurate or incomplete.
  • Respondent Error–respondents intentionally or unintentionally give incorrect answers.

Republican strategist Mike Murphy said on election night, “Tonight data died.” The widespread failure of this election’s polls could be due to a number of factors relating to classic research errors such as those above. Polls may have underrepresented Republicans initially opposed to Trump who ultimately voted for him, leading to a sampling error. Trump supporters may have given inaccurate answers, respondent error possibly due to the best light phenomenon, avoiding criticism of a seemingly undesirable choice or action. They may have shunned exit polls, nonresponse that creates a sampling error.

Not all polls and media missed the mark. The USC/LA Times Poll and the Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP Poll gave Trump the advantage going into November 8. Critics dismissed the polls as outliers, compelling Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, to defend the USC/LA Times Poll in a pre-election op-ed that explained its unique methods.


Polls, media (represented by the cartoon itself), and a smug Thomas Dewey line up against Harry Truman in the 1948 election.

In his textbook, The Practice of Public Relations, Fraser Seitel reminds us that political polls are snapshots of public mood, not predictors of outcomes. Their value rests on applying the latest insights and methods while diligently avoiding traditional research flaws. The media largely accepted the bulk of 2016 presidential polls. The Clinton campaign did as well in not anticipating the threat to its Rust Belt firewall of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Emulation of the methods used in the USC/LA Times Poll and Investor’s Business Daily/TIPP Poll is likely in future elections. Effective execution of polling and accurate analysis of results are less certain.

Posted in Bad PR Examples, Marketing, Public Relations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Remembering My Mother, Elinor Hager, 1939-2013


My mother, Elinor Hager, on the set of Adam at 6 A.M. in 1969, one of her earliest screenwriting credits

My mother, Elinor Hager, passed away on October 21, 2013. A screenwriter for nearly 30 years, she was my teacher in communication, creativity and critical thinking. She always told me how proud she was of my teaching career. Everything I am and aspire to be comes from her.

Proverbs 6:20 (NIV)

My son, keep your fathers command and do not forsake your mothers teaching.

I study under my Heavenly Father, working to uphold his commandments. And I studied under my mother, Elinor Hager. I will never forsake her teaching.

Life with Mom was an education, an eccentric, delightful state of constant learning. No subject was off limits. No person or situation was insulated from her outrageous humor. Mom consumed the raw material of the world around her, fueling the imagination that generated a livelihood for her family, an identify for herself, a legacy for all of us who remember her.

My mother’s teaching…

As her eldest child, I became her apprentice. Mom’s love of science fiction became mine as we watched first-run episodes of Star Trek. I acquired her taste in music when she excitedly returned from the record store in 1967 and sat us down hear to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Her respect for history and human events became clear when she woke me late one June night, led me to the television, and told me Bobby Kennedy had been shot. I needed to see. I needed to listen. I needed to learn. And I did, with Mom at my side.

My mother’s teaching…

As I sought my own voice as a writer and musician, I sought her counsel and approval. The critiques were pure if sometimes painful. Mom said that she cared for me too much to lie. The lessons and the love were just as pure.

The apprentice became a partner in screenwriting. It was the era of electric typewriters and stove-top popcorn. I contributed an action scene here, a plot twist there. Eventually I moved to the higher levels of character development, longterm story arcs and dialog.

My mother’s teaching…

To me, everything is a script. It is the framework Mom used to think, to write, to entertain, to achieve. It has been my guiding premise, the approach I take in everything I create today from a press release to a syllabus. I ask myself: Do we have authentic dialog? Will people believe in what I’m saying? Will they come back for more?

That’s why Mom’s passing is so hard. It constitutes lousy screenwriting by my standards–poorly structured, poorly timed, no dramatic farewell. But it’s not up to me. The Lord called my mother home is His good way and His good time. Fade out.



Clouds part as we glide over the Hollywood Hills. PAN myriad houses clinging to the slopes until one small, perfect split-level home fills the screen.


The camera’s view ascends the stairway leading to the split-level. Someone is coming home.



Jesus opens the front door and ushers Ellie inside.


The shag rug is deep. Captain Kirk issues commands from the console TV. A crowd murmurs and an orchestra tunes up before the Lonely Hearts Club Band begins its fanfare. 


Ellie gives her special, knowing laugh, reserved for the rare moments when someone has actually figured her out. Jesus leads her to the dining room table. 


A Smith Corona thrums against the wooden tabletop. Eternal stocks of Jiffy-Pop popcorn and Eaton’s Corrasable Bond typing paper wait by the machine. Ellie takes her seat and launches into her next story. She looks back at the front door and smiles. 


Jesus ushers in a newcomer, the son, just a boy in bangs and bellbottoms. Jesus steps away as the son runs toward his mother. 


                    Mom, I didn’t get to say goodbye.


                    Say hello instead.

The son hugs his mother.


                    Get the door.

The son reopens the door for the children, grandchildren and loved ones coming to see Ellie, to hear the stories and learn the lessons, all per the script.

                                               FADE TO BLACK:

Posted in Remembering My Mother, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment