Brian Stelter, Margaret Sullivan, Mike McAvoy, and Josh Barro at the BI Ignition 2016.


The media’s collective hand-wringing following the presidential election results continued Wednesday night with a panel of notable journalists addressing the role that fake news played this cycle.

CNN’s host of Reliable Sources and senior media correspondent Brian Stelter; Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, and Mike McAvoy, chief executive officer of The Onion, seemed to agree that fraudulent news helped Donald Trump clinch the presidency and it was facilitated by social media.

During Business Insider’s Ignition conference held at New York’s Time Warner Center, Sullivan cited a Buzzfeed report, which revealed that “75 percent of people who see fake news stories do believe them.” While there have always been fake stories out there, what’s different today is that Facebook, Google, Twitter and other platforms have exploded the distribution of what Sullivan called “lies.”

“It’s a much more serious problem than it has been in the past,” she said. “I think a lot more has to happen. The tech companies have to get a hold of this. It’s a tricky thing because there are free speech issues here as well. To just let this stuff proliferate and grow because it creates traffic is not a good path. Something has to happen.”

McAvoy of The Onion, a site known for satirizing the news, blamed “the lack of desire” from readers to “learn the truth,” which is the “scariest part.” He said his publication is a tool that brings to light the stupidity of the fake stories that are out there, a service that “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” also provide.

“The anti-[Hillary] Clinton, pro-Trump stories that have been the focus for the last couple of months, even though they are one subset of fake news, these are a symptom of a much bigger disease,” Stelter said. “The disease is not the fake news. That could be one part of it. The disease is much broader pessimism and instability…about what happened in the election, people who feel they’ve been left behind, whether they want to believe these fake stories. I think we need to address fake news in that context of, they have a lot of desire to know the truth, they are willing to buy into an alternate theory because of where they find themselves in this country.”

Sullivan, who most recently served as public editor at The New York Times before decamping for The Washington Post, echoed that and noted the “trust” that people have in media is “at such a low ebb right now that I think that any belief you don’t like, [they] label it ‘fake news.’ Fake news is a very narrow thing.”

Business Insider senior editor Josh Barro, who moderated the panel, categorized fake news under a broader category of “dumb news,” that being clickbait stories. McAvoy’s Onion created a site called “Clickhole,” which makes fun of these sorts of stories.

“Publishers can’t help themselves but chase clicks because they need to pay for the journalism that they’re creating, legitimate journalism,” he said. “And [we] can also make fun of the other issue, which is that the audience can’t help but click on those terrible pieces of content that they know are not going to add value….the issue in the end is that there’s a whole ecosystem of people that are misaligned, which is why it’s so challenging to fix it.”

The conversation diverged from putting the onus on news outlets to fact check, which most already do, to whether it matters in what has been called a “post-truth” Trump era.

“You know what? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I actually do think that there is such a thing as truth and facts,” Sullivan said both aggressively and defensively. “The role of journalism is to get as close to that as we can and keep reinforcing it, and call out lies when we see them. I think that mission has to be clarified and stuck with as closely as possible.”

With the panelists in agreement, the question turned again to how to make people care.

“I can’t make people want the truth, but I can help provide it,” Sullivan said. “There’s a large number of people who do want that…I know there is.”

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