Opinion: Let’s get real about fake news

Friday, August 25th, 2017

by Chris Krug, president of Franklin Center and publisher of Watchdog.org

Fake news is so passé, but we can’t get past it.

Seriously, it’s been probably, what, at least 15 seconds since someone accused someone else of stretching a story to suit their needs, twisting a fact, a comment or an image to fit nicely into their narrative, or engaging in an all-out peddling of baloney.

Or is it bologna? No matter.

The reason we can’t get past fake news is that we secretly love it. And we love to accuse each other of selling it. Yes, baloney and fake news. And neither is too terribly good for us, but that doesn’t stop us from consuming them when nobody is looking.

Let’s skip right past the blatantly awful and contrived stories that have no basis in fact. These are the clickbait stories of inland sharks, miracle pills and most outright political condemnations. These stories are so transparently untrue that a person of average wherewithal and news savvy can immediately determine they are false.

From there, they may have entertainment value in their creativity, but they present no reason for readers to accept them as factual.

Nonetheless, stories such as these entrap the casual news consumer, and those unwilling to think at a level that requires more than the ability to swipe left or right, or communicate effectively without emojis.

If this is you, and you can’t – or won’t – see through stories such as the ones I have illustrated, and still consider them as part of fake news, stop reading here. Please.

I can’t help you. You can’t help you. Nobody can help you, and you can return to whatever it was before I wasted the past four minutes of your happy existence.

No, when I think of criteria for fake news, I stop to ponder stories that have been twisted, manipulated or presented without regard for fairness or accuracy.

These stories would seem plausible, resonate as possibly containing the truth, but – upon closer inspection – are missing some details or pieces, or lack in context and completeness. They require further reasoning or research to confirm initial suspicion that the story is too good (or too bad) to be true. Remember the old game “Two truths and a lie?”

It’s reasonable to expect that a roomful of reporters can participate in the same news conference, take comparable notes, capture the quotations correctly and come away with different stories. Reportage is, after all, a human function.

Perhaps the reporters’ angles are different. Perhaps they represent publications with a specific focus or niche audience that cares intensively about a single issue. Perhaps their news outlet assigned them to focus on a subject that only was a small piece of the news conference because it has special import to their defined geography.

Or maybe these men and women with the notebooks and pens came with their story already written and weren’t really interested in what was said as much as what they think they heard. To think that some journalists don’t start with a story before their reporting begins is to be naïve.  We’ll leave that noble but insulated perspective to academia.

If you hold yourself to a journalistic standard, the goal always is to present your story truthfully. So if the reporter who authored the story you are reading consistently skips facts, lacks the intellectual ability to hold seemingly opposing concepts in their mind and then weigh them fairly or just wants to get home for dinner by 6 each night, well, their stories will fall short of the ideal.

And while there certainly are acts of commission in creating fake news, lazy reporting and inherent bias that goes unrecognized would be key contributors to why it continues to plague journalism.

Before this lands as an outright condemnation of reporters and their ability to perform without prejudice, consider that the rope they walk has been pushed farther away from the safety net. While your local news outlet may have managed to maintain the veneer of health by holding on to its top reporters, or replacing them when they’ve moved on, the backline defense of copy editors and fact-checking has all but evaporated. At the same time, the stakes for error-proof reporting have gotten higher.

In the context of a news operation, the vast majority of the content should be news. That is to say original reporting, or source-cited material, that attempts to identify the news fairly and with context.

Television and digital media are frankly awful at maintaining this measure, and for obvious reasons: Most do not have the financial capacity to invest in reporting, and instead lean on “experts” to riff on the news rather than report it. Newsgathering is expensive, relative to other forms of content for publication.

News ahead of an opinion on the news is good practice. Opinion leading news? Not so much. If your news source subscribes to this pattern, metaphorically (or perhaps euphorically), find a better source.

Reporters have to work hard to fairly create the stories on the beats or within the niche they cover. A story that took you 5 or 10 minutes to read may have taken 5 or 10 hours – and in some cases much longer – to report. They intrude into people’s lives for a living. Some do it far better and far more professionally than others. Some make the world a better place to live in by exposing truth. Some don’t and operate as if they are tenured and untouchable.

Journalism is challenging work. It requires intelligent people with curiosity, confidence and mental dexterity. It takes long hours, and the courage to ask difficult questions to people who oftentimes are difficult. Said another way, you have to give a damn about things that matter, while not giving a damn about what people think of you.

But don’t cry for people in the media. They know the job and its demands before they get into it, or soon after they start. They’re not providing a volunteer service, haven’t answered a calling from a higher power, and are compensated for their time and quality of work. The market determines their value, and they have the opportunity to apply for jobs doing something else, somewhere else anytime they’d like. Nobody is stuck in a journalism job that doesn’t want to be stuck in a journalism job.

In just about every conversation I have with someone who wants to know what they can do about fake news, I offer the same advice: Call it out as false, and detail why. Point out the flaws. Identify the errors of commission as well as those of omission, accuracy and context.

Above all else, stop sharing baloney.

  • Chris Krug is president of Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Contact him at [email protected] .

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