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Fake News, Trusting Data, and the President’s Tweets: Around the World with Reuters

As noted in my previous blog, I had the pleasure of attending the Thomson Reuters Government Conference, and sat on a panel with Andy Russell, Lead Director, Department of Defense Programs.

Prior to our panel session, a panel of Reuters Reporters shared insights on “Truth and Consequences in a Time of Uncertainty”.  This panel had some fascinating insights on the current circus in Washington DC as it related to the job of journalism, during an era when the President uses a Twitter account to shift media focus on an hourly basis.  The insights also provided information for supply chain analysts, who may be monitoring news feeds and using these feeds to inform supply chain risk models.  The implications for using Machine Based Learning as a means of driving risk analytics are also concerning here, and emphasize the importance of adopting an unbiased approach to evaluating the news.

John Walcott, Reuters International Affairs and Intelligence in DC shared some of his insights on how TRUTH is perceived in Washington and the media.. “There is an assault on the notion of trust – and we now believe that everyone is entitled to their own version of it.  This is a dangerous phenomenon, as it causes extreme difficulty in finding common ground to compromise, which makes governing becomes very difficult.  It increases the difficulty of getting anything done on Capitol Hill. He urged everyone that “It is a time when people in the media should try to tell the truth to reflect different points of view, and when there are facts.  Period.”

Yameen Abutaleb, Reuters Healthcare Correspondent, also shared the challenges in covering health policy. “We try not to take for granted information from the government – but we can’t accept it as fact anymore.  I covered Obamacare last year, and even think-tanks are becoming more political and biased.  As a result we have to apply more scrutiny on information, including numbers and statistics that we used to be able to (and should be able to) rely on.  This has changed how we report, and any number that is quoted now needed to be backed up by multiple sources.  There is no longer a single study or institution that can make a point, without it being distrusted.

Amanda Baker, Reuters Congressional Correspondent, agrees. “Even with the debt numbers, members of Congress are calling into question what used to be a baseline of truth.  These are in-house congressional units who are casting doubt on their own congressional data!  For instance, when the natonal debt numbers were produced by the Congressional Budget Office, some staffers were up in arms about it!. It was unprecedented to hear that the CBO’s numbers were accused as being “fake”!

Another change is that because the President tweets so early in the morning we have to have extra people in the office able to interpret a tweet at 6 AM who also have stay later in the evening.  The tweets can change the entire pattern of media coverage on an hourly basis.

John Walcott:.  This is a global phenomenon and we live in a global village.  Something that happens in Singapore is 12 hours away and we have to cover it.  The hardest thing is the coordination and deciding on what is worth covering.  Is every Tweet worth covering?  The administration is trying to control the narrative, and to the extent to which we feel compelled to cover anything anybody says, we will continue to be led along.  I believe there is a degree of critical thinking that is more important than ever in the past, and this needs to be applied to what we cover.  If the government says something, then there is only one question that needs to be answered:  Is it true?  Think of the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.  I’ve been based here since 1975, but I have never seen a climate as intense and politicized as what I see today.

Yameen Abutaleb:.  I agree that things have become much more political. Trump will say something about health policy, and you will spend days trying to track it down to see if it is true.   He will come out and state that “Drug prices will come down in 2 weeks. “ Then we have to chase down these facts.. Is it just something he said off the cuff?  Our research found that a lot of industry sources stated “we don’t know what he is talking about, and we do they truly not know.”  This is so frustrating. As media reporters, we don’t know if when the president says something whether it is true or not, or whether he is chasing policy.  In the past, there was more certainty:. if the president said something it meant something was actually going to be happening.

Amanda Baker:. “A lot of what is happening in news is reacting to the President.  The President’s Tweets can change the course of a day on the Hill – they will change what you are working on, and you come out of a meeting and in one hour everything has changed.  It can change during course of the day on a dime and impact multiple members of Congress.  When I wake up, I have to check: did things change overnight?. Is the meeting with Korea on or off, is the steel tariff happening or not?  These major issues can now change based on a few words Tweeted on the Internet – and we now have to stay on top of policy up to 10 PM now, when we hand over to Europe.  An onslaught of information and being prepared for that is a major challenge for all of us.

How has the foreign press changed in the way they view the US?

John Walcott:.  I met with Chinese journalists and their perspective is rooted in a different idea of governance.  Our idea of press is to hold people accountable. That is not a concept deeply rooted in China.  There the China holds the press accountable. Here we think of ourselves as the Fourth Estate (or branch of government).  Chinese reporters ask a lot about anonymous sources, and in general we find there is a lot of lack of trust in US institutions.  That Congress, Facebook, and others are not to be trusted, and this is reflected in a lot of foreign press coverage and assessment of the US.  Even among this country’s allies, there is as much faith in Russia and China as there is in the US.  The President of South Korea told the top US diplomat in Korea that he was more afraid of President Trump then Kim Jong-un!  One of the dangers of this environment is that as we have become so focused on the immediate social media, we have lost track of the broader trends apart from whatever the President just tweeted.  We have lost the ability to focus on the important issues.. We are too busy looking at our phones constantly, and we are not thinking.  This climate deprives us of the ability to do that, and we can’t pay attention to what is really going on here.. For instance, we need to consider the fact that the Chinese yuan may one day replace the dollar as the global currency if the deficit keeps going the way it is going.

What has the media missed about technology?

Yameen Abutaleb: We have not thought through how these platforms can be used, and how much data these platforms were collecting from people.  Why don’t people care about privacy stories?  Our stories aren’t generating many hits, and people don’t seem to care, and are evidently happy to hand over their data. When Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill, he distracted many Congress members by explaining how Facebook works.. One Congresswoman asked if he could bring internet to the state! Clearly Congressional members do not understand technology.

Amanda Baker:  When Zuckerberg come to testify on the hill, during the hearing, they were asking simple questions.  He would walk them through how basic stuff worked, and they had a mix of awe and being impressed;. “what a nice young man!”  His competitors, etc. did not come up, and we were not at a point where Congress was ready to regulate Facebook.

We often evaluate sources for information.  How do you evaluate potential sources when using information to make assessments of supply chain risk?

John Walcott:.   Do they know what they are talking about, and do they have a motive?  Are they spinning facts?  If so, you need to find someone else or a different source.  Some things are true, and some aren’t.  During the WMD crisis, it turned out that a lot of people in the intelligence community knew the weapons weren’t there.  And the decision to attack sent 4500 people to their graves.  These statements needed to be challenged, but it is hard to find people courageous enough to take issue with the government.  Having security clearance is what admission to the bar is like! You want to hold onto it for a lifetime – and the media has to respect that.  We have to vet people the same way an Intel officer does.   If I go into a warzone, I want to talk to field sergeants, NOT The top general.  The people in the trenches aren’t bucking for re-election or more stars.  It is tempting to pal with senators and go to the White House, but this is not where the best journalism gets done.

Amanda Baker:  Whistleblower sources are good – but anytime there is a staffer, there are spins.  They want the idea attributed to a senator, not themselves, and the weekly briefings about what is going on sometimes have nothing new to offer.  We do background briefings all the time, and I haven’t seen that change in Congress.  Two weeks ago I saw a situation where a briefing stated that a meeting with N. Korea was off – and later that day the President said his own staffer’s briefing was fake news!  His staffer had briefed the media.  How are we supposed to take this?

John Walcott:.   In Europe – you will get different perspectives from different journals. So you need to force yourself to view different publications.  I recommend you force yourself to embrace both points of view offered by MSNBC and Fox.  The NY Times and the Wall Street Journal.  We have to refuse to take the bait and positon ourselves to be objective.  We have a tendency to be unable to get out of our local world and talk to people where they live and listen to them, and really understand the conditions in the country.  I see this in Europe and China, where the power is concentrated. News in Shanghai reflects one thing, but rural China is a different world, believe me!  That is part of the answer – we are not listening to the public, and we need to get out there to people who believe, rightfully, that no one is listening to them.