What is fake news, exactly? When the president says CNN is “fake news,” what does that mean? How is fake news different from media bias? And what is the correct term to use when the media reports White House advisor Kelly Ann Conway speaking about the “Bowling Green Massacre” – a fiction that never occurred?
I got into a Facebook discussion on this topic with a highly principled conservative friend and several others from across the political spectrum. The discussion started over media reporting about how the media was covering the president’s “travel ban” executive order. My conservative friend started the conversation with a post saying “So much noise and fake news flying around regarding Pres. Trump's travel ban exec. order...”
His use of the term “fake news” bothered me. So I responded:
“’Fake news’ is meant to apply to stuff someone makes up and then passes off as real - like Hillary having an alien baby or the ‘Bowling Green Massacre.’ People sharing their opinions is not fake news. Negative reporting is not fake news, and even biased reporting is not fake news. I'm being a bit pedantic here because now the president is labeling any media coverage he doesn't like as ‘fake news.’ It is a useful term, but too easily abused...”
This resulted in a flurry of posts from all quarters. Gradually we realized we needed common definitions for the different kinds of things we read in the news. As journalist, communications teacher and co-author of The Master Communicator’s Handbook, I took a stab at clarifying terms:
Biased reporting is selective coverage. By highlighting some facts and minimizing others, it slants the news. Fox and MSNBC are examples of this from the conservative and progressive sides, respectively.
Misleading reporting is coverage that reports some facts, but intentionally leaves out other important facts. This is like a prosecutor not sharing evidence in a murder trial that would prove the defendant innocent.
Inaccurate reporting is coverage that misses key facts, but without the intention to mislead. Ethical journalists do sometimes get the facts wrong, or by rushing to publication too swiftly they miss important information.
Fake News are stories totally made up and promulgated as "news" mostly through social media.
For example, the story of the fraudulent Ohio ballots. 23-year-old Cameron Harris set out to fabricate a story of about rigged ballot stuffing in Ohio on a bogus news site, The Christian Times Newspaper. It went viral online. Fake news succeeds when it aligns with the mindsets of the target audience. If someone expects the electoral system to be rigged in favor of Democrats, then the Ohio ballots story is likely to have a ring of truth to it, and incline people to believe it without checking the facts. (Read about it here).
But what should we call it when the media covers White House spokesperson Kelly Ann Conway in three interviews speaking about the “Bowling Green Massacre” as justification for Trump’s travel ban? There was no massacre at Bowling Green, nor did the two Iraqis arrested there in 2009 ever cause anyone to die. However, there was a kernel of something: the two had been planning to harm American soldiers in Iraq. Conway’s story was mostly fake. However, news agencies accurately reported what she said. That accurate reporting of her words perpetuated the false story.
Ms. Conway herself coined the term “alternative facts” for such situations. We should refuse to use this term, nor accept it in our conversation. The correct word for false and misleading misinformation spread by political operatives is actually quite simple: Propaganda.
Propaganda: “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” (Oxford Dictionary). This applies to government officials stating falsehoods as if they are facts. It extends to tweets and social media posts that do the same thing.
So what could we call media reports that simply repeat propaganda – thereby spreading and perpetuating it? There’s no existing word for it. In the age where so much false information is being disseminated by the White House, I would offer a new term: Trumpeting.
The metaphor is easy to explain. I used to play the trumpet. There are two basic parts: The mouthpiece is a small piece of metal that fits against the lips. When you blow through it, it makes a soft buzzing sound. The trumpet is a horn attached to the mouthpiece that amplifies that small sound into something loud that can be heard for miles around. So here’s my definition:
Trumpeting: Media reporting of propaganda from a government spokesperson.
It is most important to understand that trumpeting takes place whether the propaganda is reported as factual or reported as false. Although the media have done a thorough job of debunking the “Bowling Green Massacre,” a recent poll by the left-leaning Public Policy Polling reported that 53% of voters who supported Donald Trump believe this fake event was real, and that the “massacre” justified Trump’s travel ban (read about it here).
This might seem incredible. Psychologist George Lakoff provides a brilliant explanation of why repeating fake news and propaganda actually strengthens some people’s conviction that it is true (read Lakoff’s blog about it here). Some progressives on social media have lampooned the episode by creating satirical posts about “remembering the victims of Bowling Green.” In so doing, they inadvertently strengthen some people’s beliefs in this false story.
So what is the media to do? First of all, if a spokesperson has been proven to lie, he or she should not be interviewed, nor covered on TV. CNN, Joe Scarborough and other news outlets have already declined to have Kelly Ann Conway back on their shows after her “Bowling Green” interviews.
Second of all, journalists should fact-check statements and tweets coming from government spokespersons (of course including opposition leaders), especially individuals who have a track record of misleading. This used to be standard practice in the mainstream media. But the 24-hour news cycle produced a race to be first with the story. At the same time, reduced media budgets has meant fewer resources for fact-checking. As a consequence, journalists repeat what is said by mouthpieces, and then call that “reporting.” We who consume media information need to hold the media accountable for not simply covering what was said, but verifying the facts. Reporters who don’t are just Trumpeting.
There’s a simpler and better option for the news media: cover actions, not words. When a government mouthpiece buzzes propaganda, by word or by tweet, don’t risk Trumpeting it. Don’t report it at all. Remember, if it didn’t really happen, it isn’t really news.
Tim Ward is the author of The Master Communicator’s Handbook.