Fake news has now become synonymous with the media. Everyone seems to be scrambling to identify or define what’s real but few have really captured the symbolism of this recent phenomenon. That’s why how you respond and what you do to get your news and information could help determine the fate of what happens to 21st century reporting.
There is something to it
Journalists are human. They get it wrong. A lot. So do politicians. They spin, conflate facts with opinion and yes even makeup new words. It’s not an excuse but it is a fact. It happens. Unfortunately, it seems to be more prevalent. The problem with fake news overall is far more complex, however. News by definition has evolved rapidly, especially since I started out in my first newsroom in 1991. In today’s digital age, news is more than mere journalism. Anyone with a website or social media app is producing news, and considered a journalist or at least calling themselves one. Even more, corporate America has gotten in on the game by becoming content creators marketing products as news stories right alongside journalists. The result is a blurred line that the average news reader as a whole is left trying to sort out when even professional communicators (whose job it is to know) can’t even adequately tell you the difference between what a reporter versus a producer versus an analyst versus an anchor versus a commentator is in a nightly newscast. Furthermore, when companies continue to generate their own news content and aggregators like Facebook use your own behavior with their own news teams to push what it feeds you, bias creeps in. And therein lies another huge distinction between what is and is not news. Every person harbors bias. The reporting of real news (i.e. journalism) does not. At least it is not supposed to.
It’s not new
With the advent of social media false narratives, alternative facts, and fake news are gaining speed (and readers) faster than actual facts. But the so-called phenomenon is not really new. It’s all as old as journalism and calling a story fake doesn’t automatically make it so. It’s a question of whether there is intentional bias or an intent to mislead. Genuine errors, usually followed by corrections, are not intentional. What constitutes false reporting or not real news has more to do with the substance and intent rather than perception. Some of it can be hard to measure at first but usually, eventually bubbles to the surface. Then then are the obvious websites designed to mislead (i.e. click bait), bloggers who could care less about accuracy, people knowingly perpetuating unsubstantiated information, and respected journalists who get caught playing fast and loose with the facts. That is what constitutes fake news. When consumers have a hard time deciphering between marketing material and editorial content that’s designed to be deceptive, that is fake news. Not liking a story, seeing the same information through a different lens than how you would report it, being offended or claiming bias even when the facts are in line, is opinion. That is not fake news.
You can change it
Despite what some see as a downward spiral in the field of fact-based reporting, I’m a bit more optimistic about the future of editorial demand and consumption. Predictive revenue models aside, creators and consumers of news and information need to remain vigilant.
- Be your own fact-checker
Don’t get consumed by the hyperbole. Do due diligence and know the difference. Whether you read it or write it, do your own research. Use trusted sites and verify the information with at least three separate sources. As a consumer you owe it to yourself to be knowledgeable. As a creator, integrity is paramount to the craft. Where there is honesty and respect for the process, truth will prevail.
- Be a champion for change
When journalists get sloppy, or worse lazy, readers and advertisers should hold them accountable. When their reporting produces stellar results, commend them. Don’t just complain when it’s wrong, champion what’s right. Creators of news should always set the bar high, fact-check, advocate for better content, quickly admit and correct mistakes, speak out against press suppression and support ethical reporting standards.
- Encourage future truth-seekers
There is hope. We can and are raising a new generation of truth seekers. Facilitating these efforts is the work of organizations like the Newseum Institute’s freedom of the press and the Knight Foundation’s pursuit for journalistic excellence. Then there’s this story I ran across on CBS News and had to share with some of my students. It epitomizes the importance of truth as seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old. We could all learn a lesson from her.