Secrets of the “Fake News”

In 2019, the news cycle moves faster than ever. With the rise of social media and the development of technology, we’re able to get access to information at an almost instantaneous speed. While this has made our world more connected than ever, it can also produce catastrophic circumstances when the information disseminated is inaccurate.

Having worked in broadcast, print, and digital news, I’ve seen first hand how the media operates. Yes — it is first a business. But it is also a vocation to many, and one that is protected by the United States Constitution. I got into journalism for the same reason many young, aspiring reporters do — I wanted to enact change. I wanted to cover the exciting, breaking news stories that helped shape our world. I wanted to expose political scandal and corrupt government wars.

Alas, I ended up working in entertainment, covering celebrity breakups and makeups. But not before I was one of the first people at the San Bernardino shooting, not before I sat with families who’d lost loved ones, interviewed accused criminals, and talked to surviving victims. And what I learned during my years in journalism is this: you’ll never report a story with 100% accuracy to 100% of people. Maybe you got a fact wrong, or were given false information. Or, more likely, the facts are right — and the narrative is wrong. We saw that recently in the case of the Covington Catholic students.

How can so many people watch the same video and get different meanings out of it? Because our narratives are all skewed based on our bias. With the rise of the internet, bias has come out through bloggers and opinion media, too. This had led to what some refer to as “Fake News.” There are two ways “fake news” is spread:

1. By “The Media” — When Today Show host Matt Lauer was ousted from his post last year, the media ran wild with a story about him having a so-called “panic button” under his desk. He allegedly had it installed himself, and used it to close and lock his office door when he would take advantage of his victims.

The fact that Matt Lauer had a panic button is supposedly true, as confirmed by a credible source. However, what the media left out was: every high-profile and VIP employee of NBC / The Today Show had the same panic button in case of emergency. There was nothing sinister about the fact that Lauer had this installed — it was more than likely a mandatory precaution at 30 Rock. But when you use it in the context of him being a predator, it suddenly takes on new meaning.

2. By “The People” — We see a video (like the Covington Catholic incident) and place our own narrative on it, without knowing the facts. We hear or see something on social media — like the fact that NYC just passed late-term abortion — it is now legal to get an abortion up until a baby’s birth.

A pro-lifer then shares this breaking news story on Twitter, leaving off crucial, true information — “In cases where the mother’s health is at risk.” Again, this takes something that is factual, and presents it in a way that doesn’t quite tell it truthfully (in this case, whether you agree with it or not is beside the point). These stories spread insidiously throughout society and are repeated hundreds of thousands of times until they are deeply ingrained and believed by many citizens.

The final offender? The fact that “news media” is all encompassing — when the 1st Amendment was established, and in the hundreds of years following, there was a clear cut and established media presence, simply due to the nature of distribution. With the ubiquity of blogging and social media, the line of credibility has been blurred. The ethical rules that once acted as a guideline for journalists everywhere seems to have all but vanished.

A piece is published and, somewhere along the line, more information becomes available which negates the story and someone dubs it “fake news.” Does this mean that the news media is deliberately lying to the American public? Not necessarily. But it does mean that we can all look at the same information and conclude very different outcomes, especially when the information isn’t quantifiable facts.

Still, the responsibility tends to fall on the outlet reporting the news. So what should the news media do? In truth, it’s a rush to be the first with an “exclusive” or to break the next big story. Beating your competitors means more eyeballs and more credibility, but can result in inaccurate fact-checking and sloppy reporting. Even as recently as last week, Buzzfeed was criticized for their “questionable” reporting on the Michael Cohen story and torn apart for it.

On the other hand, you wait too long and certain balances go unchecked. I have seen first hand when news outlets won’t cover certain stories due to lack of information, or fear of retaliation. What happens in a communist society where the government controls the media, and — the narrative? Think about Russia. North Korea. China.

What’s worse: a world where an outlet has to retract a story — that may have already resulted in severe consequences for it’s subjects — or a world where we are not privy to the goings-on and the potential corruption brewing behind the powers that be?

As the audience, we should be armed with critical thinking skills. Yes, it is the news media’s job to deliver the most important news information as quickly and as accurately as possible — but in a democratic society like America, it is ours to do our due diligence.

The media has a big job, and we need to hold them accountable. But we can’t disregard any news we don’t like as the fault of the messenger. The free press is of the utmost importance in our society, especially in the times of political and social discord. It seems that in the court of public opinion, anything is up for debate — including the facts.