Recently, on my radio show, the topic of “fake news” came up. It is a hot topic today, one in which people seem to be losing sleep over. It is interesting in seeing the level of alarm out there when it comes to the subject. It is as though people have just woken up to this reality, when it has been an issue for as long as news has existed. Even in the United States.
We are already familiar with the fact that, around the world, some governments actually write the news in their countries. It is largely propaganda and goes against the United State’s historic commitment to a free press. However, because of that freedom, there is a great deal of creative license among publications. Throughout US history there have been many publications with ideological bents that were considered “fake news” by those with a different worldview. This reality was always seen as necessary in order to keep the press free. People being unable to tell legitimate from fake news is leading to the drum being beat loudly to stop this. However, that type of rhetoric paves the way for censorship. It is better to have a plethora of inaccurate, and even fake, news than have the government telling us what we can produce or consume when it comes to information.
If people are looking for someone to blame for our current “fake news” they can begin by looking at the government itself. The vast majority of Americans (approximately 85 to 90 percent, depending on the source) were educated in public schools. That means a significant amount of information they have on how to interpret news came through their education before they became writers. Also, the general population’s gullibility when it comes to the news stems from what they learned in school. If they were well educated, they would not have these type of problems. Fake news would be quickly dismissed if we had a population that could think critically.
Not that many years ago there was a clear distinction between editorials and the rest of the news. Most publications had an “Opinion” (for an example) section and it was suppose to be clear to the reader that the writers there had an ax to grind. Over time there grew a hybrid of news and opinion that became known as “analysis.” These type of articles were clearly biased, they were just more subtle about it. I rarely see this distinction now. Today, virtually every news site — including the large ones — have article after article by individuals with an agenda. The vast majority of these articles are largely opinion. We are suppose to believe that sites with significant traffic are legitimate, while those that do not, are not. Such thinking is the epitome of argumentum ad populum, which means "If many believe so, it is so." In logic, this is called a “fallacy.” The truth is, many sites have massive traffic, but extreme opinions. Salon.com and the Drudge Report are polar opposites, but have large followings, each of which would find the site they do not follow, “fake news.” People ask me what are the most dangerous sources of fake news and I believe it is the ones that are huge in their followings, but still promote agendas without a disclaimer.
The truth is, it should be “buyer beware.” The last thing we should have is the government nannies protecting us from what might be harmful in print. Smart consumers of news and information should take the following actions.
Be skeptical of what you read, starting with the headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If the story sounds unbelievable just from the headline, it probably is.
Investigate the sources. Make sure the story is written by a source that you trust and if you are not familiar with it, go to the “About” page and learn more.
Watch the timelines carefully. If the events in the timeline do not add up, the story is probably fake.
Check out the evidence and the sources.
Compare the story with other reports. Comparison shopping is smart — especially when it comes to the news.
Think critically. If the writer clearly has an agenda and does not have much to back it up, there is a likelihood it is fake.
In the future, I would love to see all news sites require a disclaimer about the approach a writer takes in his or her work. Mine would say, “Kevin is a recovering traditional conservative who has become increasingly libertarian and demonstrates that in his writing.” Do not expect such though, that requires too much common sense.