Don’t Confuse Fake News with Op-Eds, Satire and Journalistic Errors
Fake news is a problem, certainly, but we have reached a point where the label is recklessly and unjustifiably applied whenever someone disputes the facts in a published article or social media post. This must stop before we wrongly discredit every source of news we have. The health of democracies depends upon an informed electorate and the media plays a vital role in ensuring that we can have one. That is why we must stop accusing every news outlet that gets a story wrong and every story with an error in it of being fake news. And we certainly must stop calling news with which we disagree fake.
Over the 2016 US election campaign, we saw the rise of sites that deliberately used false stories, often intermingled with true stories. A significant number of the “fake news” sites were launched by Macedonian teens using false stories as a means to drive traffic to their websites. This allowed them to make a lot of money from the ads placed on their sites. While this is disturbing and disruptive, their goal was purely a money grab, and not meant to be political. But despite their intentions, the political impact was large and is still being felt around the world.
Under the cover provided by these money-grabbing fake news sites, several political “dirty tricks” sites were using the same tactics, but with the goal of spreading false information about the opposing candidate. These fake news sites were part of an array of dirty tricks designed to suppress the turnout for one candidate or another (most famously, these were directed against Hillary Clinton). And since the 2016 elections in the U.S. (and the earlier BREXIT election in the U.K.), politically motivated fake news sites and campaigns have popped up across the world, ranging from France to the Ukraine, to Colombia, to the Philippines, to Kenya, and more.
Donald Trump’s role in the U.S. before and since the election is multi-faceted. As a speaker of false statements throughout the campaign, he provided much fodder for the fake news sites. As a consumer of many sites spreading fake news, his views on issues were misshaped by bad information. But more to the point, Trump regularly accuses mainstream media outlets that have been critical of him and his Administration of being fake news in a blatant attempt to discredit them. And since he started down this path, we see other unsavory world leaders like Duterte in the Philippines, Assad in Syria, Putin in Russia, and Erdogan in Turkey use similar rhetoric and actions to discredit and disable critical media in their countries.
Note, while not unique to the U.S., the American news media companies are entirely separate from the government. Even the limited number of Public Television and National Public Radio news programs, while receiving federal funding, are not subject to government editorial control. So where in many countries the news comes from government news agencies and is thus less likely to be critical of the government, in the U.S. the media is a Constitutionally protected watchdog of the government and is often critical of it.
Trump’s strategy, echoed by his influential and rank and file supporters in the U.S., is deliberate. “It is an intentional culture grab so that people in the middle don’t know what the truth is,” says Suzanne Turner, President of turner4D and long-time communications strategist. By accusing our most reliable and ethical news media of being fake news, Trump is systematically undermining public trust in the news. This allows him to rewrite facts (“alternative facts”) and give them credence they do not deserve.
But Trump, (and other political leaders) trying to suppress the critical press, can only succeed if we let them. If we accept their branding of mainstream media outlets as fake news, we allow them to present lies as facts. The result is a poorly informed electorate and the likely death of, or sever damage to democracy and its institutions.
“Fake news is made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.” It is fundamentally different from opinion articles we may find disagreeable, satire and journalists making mistakes in a story.
Opinion articles — whether they be editorials in a newspaper, opinion segments on news broadcasts, op-ed articles written by either columnists or experts — are not fake news. They are opinions. And opinions are never universally accepted. An opinion writer may deliberately attempt to mislead, but most likely, they believe what they write. But we usually know they are presenting opinions. It is typically labeled as such. That is good, and as a result, it is NOT fake news.
There are, however, deliberate efforts to blur the line between news and opinion. For example, few people realize that Fox News has both a news division and an entertainment division. But it goes deeper than that. In 2012, Fox owner Rupert Murdoch moved ALL of Fox News Network into a separate entertainment company, while the newspapers and book publishing were moved into a separate news company. In 2015, then Fox News Network president Roger Ailes admitted that his was not a news network, it was an entertainment network.
Within the Fox News Network (entertainment) company, there is a breaking news division, which is led by Shepard Smith. And it is plain to see that his approach is what we normally expect from a news division, even if it may often have a conservative slant. On the other hand, many of the evening programs, hosted by Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and others, are NOT part of the news division. These are entertainment programs presenting biased political opinion, not news.
We can see the implications of this difference by looking at the political contribution scandal that got Keith Olbermann suspended from MSNBC. Olbermann was a journalist anchoring a news program. MSNBC rules, consistent with journalistic ethics, prohibit its journalists from giving money to politicians. Meanwhile, over at Fox News, Sean Hannity was giving money to politicians without breaking any of Fox News’ rules. “Fox News has long said it considers Hannity, similarly to Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, a host, not a news anchor or journalist. A search of federal campaign disclosures found no Fox News on-air journalists such as Shepard Smith to have made contributions or donations.”
Meanwhile, across the news industry, when journalists make mistakes in their stories, the publication issues corrections. This is inherent in journalistic ethical expectations and a standard practice. In many cases, news media outlets have an independent Ombudsman whose job it is to be an advocate for the reader and to keep the publication honest. There is no such person protecting the public from misinformation shared by Sean Hannity.
Is Sean Hannity’s show a fake news show? If it were a news program, a strong case could be made for that point of view. But it is not a news show. It is an opinion/entertainment show. So, technically, it is not fake news. But by obscuring that is not a news program, Fox News opens the door to critics accusing Hannity of being fake news.
If a news outlet publishes an incorrect story, does that make it a fake news outlet? Certainly not. To be a fake news outlet, the false stories would be published deliberately and knowingly. And there would be no retractions or corrections.
Journalism is inherently a messy profession. Reporters are publishing their stories as they unfold. What we know today may very likely be superseded by what we learn tomorrow. Sources may lie to journalists. That is how the business works.
But professional journalists are taught how to check their facts. Traditionally, they seek out independent corroboration of facts before they print them. In recent years, due to the rise of social and digital media, there has been a growing drive to get stories out first. This carries the risk of publishing more errors. And while professional news outlets correct these errors as soon as they discover them, the errors have tarnished many reputations. Still, this is not fake news. It is the process of journalism in the digital age.
I would be remiss if I did not include a discussion of satire here. Truth be told, the phrase “fake news” was popularized, if not coined by Jon Stewart. He rightly pointed out that The Daily Show, along with SNL’s Weekend Update, are “fake news” programs. But they are fake for the purpose of presenting a humorous take on the news. They do not claim to be news programs, even if many Americans trust what they hear on them (satirical news, especially on The Daily Show, starts with a real news item and then twists it to highlight some real and ridiculous aspect of the story).
Satirical news outlets include The Onion, Last Week Tonight, and Real Time with Bill Maher. The Onion will often make stories up out of whole cloth, but only in order to make a social comment on something real in the news. And Bill Maher’s show might more appropriately be characterized as satirical opinion, rather than news. Regardless, the bottom line is that the original concept of “fake news” as encapsulated in these comedy programs and publications is very different from the concept of “fake news” that has captured current conversations around the world.
At this point, we are seeing that the efforts by Trump and his supporters to discredit the press by wrongly accusing it of being fake news is working. More and more, we are seeing people who are not driven by politics falling into the trap of calling op-eds and news stories with mistakes “fake news.” This development is particularly disturbing, as can be inferred from the analysis above. Getting “people in the middle” to embrace this lax definition of “fake news” helps Trump in his efforts to discredit any news media that criticises him.
And now that he has succeeded in blurring the line between “fake news” and news, Trump pushes the envelope further. After wrongly accusing CNN of being “fake news” (even Fox’s Shep Smith called Trump out for this), Trump announced that White House spokespeople will no longer appear on CNN because CNN will not report the White House’s storylines because, as then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer says, they have “no desire to actually get something right.” More recently, the Trump administration barred CNN’s pool reporter from attending an open press event at the White House.
Personally, having watched Kellyanne Conway frequently refuse to answer any questions in her interviews, I feel that respectable news media outlets should not invite her to be a guest. That said, Trump’s efforts to discredit real news outlets and to elevate truly biased and perhaps fake news outlets like Breitbart and Info wars (which has been subsequently banned from most social media platforms for spreading fake news), is a naked power grab designed to disinform and misinform the public. It is an attempt by the Trump Administration to control the news.
These attacks on the free press is utterly anti-democratic, to say the least. I want no part of it. And none of us should. Even the most conservative among us should cringe at this assault on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in the U.S. and on democratic values of free speech everywhere.
Alan Rosenblatt, Ph.D., is a digital communications and social media strategist, professor & thought leader with over 25 years’ experience in digital/social politics, advocacy, media, and education.
He is Director of Digital Research at Lake Research Partners & Principal, leading the Digital and Social Media Strategy Practice at turner4D.
Alan co-founded the Internet Advocacy Roundtable in 2005 and in 1995 taught the world’s 1st college course on digital/social media politics at George Mason University.
He’s been teaching variations of it ever since — currently at George Washington, Johns Hopkins, and American Universities, and previously at Georgetown and Gonzaga Universities.
Dr. Rosenblatt was Associate Director for Online Advocacy at the Center for American Progress/CAP Action Fund from 2007–2013, where he created and managed the Center’s enterprise social media program and ran many online advocacy campaigns. He is a prolific writer, currently blogging at npENGAGE and turner4D’s Carpe Colloquium and previously at Huffington Post, Social Media Today, techPresident, Big Think, Roll Call, and Campaigns & Elections. He is a frequent keynote speaker and panelist. Alan has a Ph.D., M.A. and B.A. in Political Science and can be found across social media @DrDigiPol.