(L to R) Moderator Joel Bellman, journalists Joel Grover, Alexandra Berzon, Matt Doig, and USC Annenberg professor Vince Gonzales sit and discuss "fake" news during the “Investigative Journalism in the Era of Facebook and Fake News” panel on April 5th, 2017.
Photo by Katie LaMattina.

Fake news and the power of investigative journalism: A conversation with SPJ

Journalists from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and NBC4 joined USC Annenberg professor Vince Gonzales to discuss and share insight about fake news in an “Investigative Journalism in the Era of Facebook and “Fake News” panel at Wallis Annenberg Hall on April 5.

The panel included Matt Doig, Assistant Managing Editor for Investigations at the Los Angeles Times; Joel Grover, an investigative reporter with NBC4 in Los Angeles;  Alexandra Berzon, a Wall Street Journal reporter. The panel was moderated by Society of Professional Journalists Los Angeles board member Joel Bellman and organized by SPJ.  

The panelists discussed the origin of “fake news” and its history before the contentious Presidential election in 2016, ways in which journalists can combat fake news, the power of investigative journalism and the need for media and the public to work together.

In 2017, the Trump administration continues to attack journalism and label legitimate sources, such as The New York Times and CNN, as fake news.

Gonzales explained fake news has always been a problem for the media.

“Fake news has always been with us and has always been about politics – such as smearing an opposing candidate – and money, as sensationalistic headlines sold papers,” Gonzales said. “But once we moved away from a system of trusted, supposedly objective legacy media organizations, things changed for the worse.”

However, Gonzales said fake news became an even bigger player in politics because it was amplified and made more accessible through the internet and, particularly, social media. When the fake news became more widely spread and believable, it became much more difficult for journalists to debunk the stories.

“Considering all sides, the question becomes: ‘How can we battle fake news? How should we react when a foreign government, say Russia, is paying for fake news to be generated in attempt to sway an American Presidential election?’” Gonzales said.

With regards to Facebook, Gonzales believes social media companies have a responsibility to regulate fake news.

“It is ridiculous for these companies, who would essentially go dark if they stopped carrying the work of journalists, to claim they are not media companies,” he said. “They are, whether they like it or not. They should take responsibility, not for regulating speech, but for stopping outright lies and the manipulation of the public.”

In order to differentiate between legitimate and fake news, Gonzales explained both the media and the public must work together to spread the truth. He said journalists need to verify information they receive, but the public also needs to play a role by reading a variety of content across different types of media and the political spectrum.

Regarding President Trump’s continued attacks on the media, Gonzales explained that investigative reporters have always been slandered by those in power who do not like their reporting. However, in the face of opposition, Gonzales said journalists must persist and keep reporting despite the any negative feedback.

Doig said the necessity of transparency and honesty within politics makes investigative journalism an integral tenet of democracy.

“Investigative journalism is about discovering things that powerful people don’t want the public to know. All reporters should be investigative journalists,” Doig said.

Although fake news has been amplified by the Trump administration, attacks on the media have been around for a while.

“The government has been shutting reporters out for a while now. Mayor Eric Garcetti and President Barack Obama have been among the politicians who have not responded to my calls,” Grover said.

A member of the audience questioned the effect big money has on investigative journalism.

Berzon said it is not out of the norm for billionaires to buy newspapers. However, this makes the media susceptible to their personal desires. She used Sheldon Adelson as an example, a billionaire who bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal. After buying the paper, the first target of one of the investigative projects was the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, one of Adelson’s main competitors.

“On its face, it seems like a potentially legitimate story,” Berzon said. “There is a concern, though, with folks buying papers to use the investigative teams to investigate issues they are personally concerned with.”

Moreover, Berzon said investigative journalism can be difficult as it requires journalists to uncover hidden information that is often protected by rich and powerful sources. To combat this, journalists invest a lot of time and money into each of their projects, she said.

“I have an investigative project right now that hasn’t worked out but I’m not ready to give it up. I won’t make it my main priority because it might not work out but I constantly have multiple projects in the works,” she said.

The panel ended on a positive note.

“It’s actually a great time to be a journalist. Never have reporters been more needed, and it is safe to say that almost any time someone in power starts to complain about reporters, it is because they are doing too good of a job,” Gonzales said. “That’s what we need more of right now.”