Newsstands are fixtures of New York City life. Kiosks on sidewalks, street corners, and subway platforms are reliable destinations for snacks, smokes, drinks, broadsheets, and tabloids. If you’re lucky, you might also spy lotto tickets, phone chargers, and remedies for whatever ails you, alongside the headlines from the day. But on October 20th, visitors to one newsstand adjacent to Bryant Park in New York got something surprising: a masterclass in misinformation.
“TRUMP OFFERS IMMIGRANTS ONE-WAY TICKETS OUT OF U.S.,” one magazine for sale claimed.
“HILLARY CLINTON TOLD FBI TO DELIVER URANIUM TO RUSSIANS,” was the above-the-fold story on one newspaper.
“HOLLYWOOD ELITES USE BABY BLOOD TO GET HIGH,” read another magazine.
With glossy covers, stylized typography, and editorial artwork, these magazines and newspapers looked exactly like real publications at a glance. But they weren’t real; they were all “fake news,” as part of the Columbia Journalism Review’s News Stand, a pop-up installation developed along with the creative agency TBWA\Chiat\Day that exposed the dangers of fake news and educated people about how to identity it. Kyle Pope, editor of CJR, keeps a close eye on the problems surrounding misinformation and the challenges of promoting media literacy, and wanted to address them in a provocative, urgent way.
“[We were] trying to grab people by the collar and say: this is something you need to pay attention to,” Pope says.
The CJR’sNews Stand reeled customers in with salacious headlines on covers designed by TBWA\Chiat\Day that are dead ringers for well-known magazines and newspapers. The stand’s publications mimicked the typography and layouts of Bloomberg Businessweek, People, Vanity Fair, USA Today, and The New York Post, among others—the design cues that traditionally signal how the contents of their respective titles should be perceived. The content itself was culled from actual “fake news” stories that received high engagement online.
Once a customer picked up a copy at the News Stand, or started chatting with the cashier (who was really a CJR staffer), a bait and switch took place: The cashier told them that the publication was fake and then provided a pamphlet about the rise of misinformation; changes in the media industry that contributed to misinformation’s spread; and tips on how to identify misleading or false news from the News Literacy Project. Such tips include questioning the source and byline, examining how the article plays into biases, and recognizing how it elicits emotions.
Customers usually reacted to the News Stand one of three ways. Most people glanced and kept walking (a CJR staffer caught up with these people and asked if they noticed anything unusual); some people were convinced the stories were real (particularly in the case of a “toddler fight club”); and some immediately identified the absurdity.
“A few Trump supporters—who seemed to be New Yorkers—said, ‘All media is fake, so this is no surprise,’” Pope says about some of the more unexpected responses.
Over time, publications establish their reputation, trustworthiness, and legitimacy by consistently producing a high quality product, from the reporting that goes into stories to the design and layouts that make them sing. In turn, their visual identity often becomes shorthand for what they represent. If you see a copy of The Atlantic on a newsstand—with its custom wordmark based on a condensed italic Bauer Bodoni—you know it contains stories that went through a rigorous editorial process that included reporting, multiple rounds of editing, and fact checking. If you see Us Weekly—with its busy Word Art-like block print—you know it’s a celebrity rumor mill. These graphic cues are behind the double-take moment the News Stand provoked: When set in the graphic language of established print media, fake news often looks more fake than when you encounter it online.
Of course, publications like Us Weekly and The Atlantic also have websites, which bear similar design markers and graphic identities. The challenge with online news is that those visual references are stripped away by social media platforms. It becomes impossible to see all of the graphic elements and contextual clues that help signal a story’s trustworthiness or newsworthiness. What you’re left with is just a headline and a picture, and maybe a comment from whomever in your network shared it.
“When you take this misinformation out of the context it’s in—which is some website or on your Facebook feed or Twitter, and you put it on a hard copy in the real world, you realize how ridiculous and absurd it is,” Pope says. “On its face you sort of laugh and say, ‘No one would really believe that.’ But all of those stories we pulled had actually existed on the web and some had been widely shared.”
The spread of misinformation has been an especially difficult and worsening problem. So-called “fake news” stories received more engagement than real news in the days leading up to the 2016 election. False conspiracy theories about the migrant caravan being a Jewish plot fueled the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh. And Cesar Sayoc, who is suspected of mailing pipe bombs to CNN and prominent Democrats, consumed and shared large amounts of misinformation on social media. In a twisted turn, conservative media then issued unproven claims that Sayoc’s actions were a left-wing scheme, adding more misinformation to the news cycle. Social media platforms seem unwilling or under-equipped to deal with the severity of the problem, and the U.S. government’s political will to regulate them is virtually non-existent. But is more fake news the best way to fight fake news?
“We want to highlight bad information and the fact that it’s out there and that consumers need to think about this, but we don’t want to further it, we don’t want to propagate it,” Pope says. “But to make the point, we had to propagate it a little bit. I sort of view it as vaccine: You have to use a little bit of it to inoculate people against it.”
Pope views News Stand as a performance piece, and it joins a fertile space in which contemporary artists are using media to critique media’s misleading nature. In her Counternarratives series, Alexandra Bell edits newspaper layouts and front pages of publications like the New York Times to highlight biased storytelling in mainstream media and posts her markups in public spaces. After being frustrated with the lack of stories for, about, and by immigrants, Lizania Cruz decided to publish her own and distribute the stories through her We the News stand. Photographer Diego Berruecos highlighted the biased nature of Mexican newspapers by taking self portraits behind front covers for 120 days leading to the election. The challenge surrounding misinformation and bias is deeper than so-called “fake news,” and artists are drawing attention to it in deeper and more meaningful ways than with a traditional PSA.
The CJR hopes that more public awareness campaigns about being an informed reader, like News Stand, will add to the conversation.
“We have to sort of take it on ourselves to educate our readers and consumers that this stuff is out there,” Pope says. “It’s ridiculous on its face, but it’s also dead serious…It’s out there. And we can’t ignore it.”
For more on detecting misinformation, pick up a copy of Eye on Design issue #03, themed “Gossip” and flip to pg. 79 for our own guide to the visual clues of fake news.