Combatting misinformation in a world of alternative facts

Chris Anderson

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, made waves in the political world when she coined the term “alternative facts” during an interview on Meet the Press.

The phrase was coined by Conway in response to Chuck Todd asking why White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer “utter[ed] a provable falsehood.”

This was in response to Spicer spending much of his first press conference disputing information that Trump’s inauguration had a lower turnout than Obama’s 2008 inauguration.

Conway responded by saying, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and […] our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that.”

Since then, the phrase has been mocked on social media, with the popular hashtag #alternativefacts on Twitter.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) put out a statement on “alternative facts,” condemning the phrase and equating them to lies.

“Encouraging and perpetuating the use of alternative facts by a high-profile spokesperson reflects poorly on all communications professionals,” Jane Dvorak, chair of PRSA, said. “PRSA strongly objects to any effort to deliberately misrepresent information. Honest, ethical professionals never spin, mislead or alter facts.”

Beth Haag, public relations lecturer in the Greenlee School of Journalism, agreed that alternative facts should be called what they are, “lies.”

In Haag’s public relations writing class, she had her class do an exercise analyzing Spicer’s conference and the message the Trump White House wanted to send out.

“The overwhelming thing was his tone of voice and his body language, [which showed he wasn’t being truthful],” Haag said, “It was very obvious there were facts from credible sources, and everything he was talking about had no credible source.”

Since Conway’s statement, many people have recognized the moral and political issue we face if our government isn’t being entirely truthful to us. The statement has been called “Orwellian” in reference to George Orwell’s “1984”, which by Jan. 26, had become the No. 1 best seller on Amazon.

Haag acknowledged the need for good journalism and good public relations in a world of fake news and alternative facts.

“I think that’s where journalism needs to take a stand and where PR needs to take a stand,” Haag said. “Alternative facts put a bad light on PR.”

Haag also said that journalists and PR professionals in many cases receive the very same training.

“My training as a PR person is just the same as a journalist … I know what a journalist is supposed to do, and I’m supposed to hold myself to that same standard. [Spicer] was not doing that,” Haag said.

Haag added that social media is also playing a role in politics in a way we haven’t seen before, which could be a positive.

“I do know because of social media I found out about this right away,” Haag said.

The key for the consumer is to find information from sources that can be trusted, Haag said.

“You have to look at who your news sources are,” Haag said. “There’s so much fake news out there, there’s so many people putting messages out. You have to look and see who you can trust.”

The problem, however, must also be addressed by those working in journalism and public relations to combat the misinformation that is becoming more and more commonplace.

“I truly believe public relations should tell the truth and do so in an ethical manner,” Haag said.