There’s an easy way to distinguish legitimate news stories from ‘fake news,’ and it’s not what you think
To friends, relatives, and other folks I know via social media:
You’re a hard-working bunch. Among you are sports coaches, real estate brokers, dental assistants, construction workers, and other professionals who spent years training to get your job. And then you gained some unique on-the-job experiences that have made you even more qualified at what you do.
If I told you that a guy on the street offered to give me a root canal for $50 ― even though he had no dental training or experience ― but I liked his pitch, I’m guessing you would try to talk me out of it.
And if I said I was avoiding all of the “Mainstream Dentists” (MSD) because I’d had problems with a few of them, you’d likely shake your head, particularly since there are 195,202 licensed dentists in this country and many work hard, volunteer on the side, and have a record of results.
Yet, in the recent past, you’ve decided that because you are frustrated with certain television news outlets, you’ll help government officials discredit an entire field of professionals — journalists — who are sometimes the only ones to shine a light on corruption or aid an individual who’s been the victim of injustice. While I’ll concede that some reporters have proven to be slackers or ill-trained ― and there are people like that in every industry, including yours ― countless others have exposed health hazards in your playgrounds, helped taxpayers obtain public records, and uncovered government practices that waste your money. Is it any wonder that officials want you to distrust those outlets? It makes no sense to buy into a campaign to discredit thousands of legitimate reporters (by using propaganda terms such as “MSM”) while at the same time placing faith in quackish websites that can get away with making up whatever stories they want.
Understand that there are specific checks and balances on established media, while websites that hide their ownership can duck lawsuits and manufacture facts. When you share an article from a site whose name incorporates terms like “liberty” “justice” and “federal” (often used in fake news sites to make you think you’re being patriotic by reading them) do you have a way to find out who’s actually writing it? In the last six months, teenagers in Balkan countries (such as Macedonia) have outright admitted that they made up political stories on websites to reap American advertising dollars. When you see a site with a name like www.federalistjusticeforfred that doesn’t reveal who owns it, your should question it — especially if their “news” doesn’t appear in even one other outlet. During the election, people whom you know recirculated fake stories because the content confirmed what they wanted to believe. At the same time, you and others have turned away from ”mainstream” news outlets that would suffer from ruined reputations and lawsuits if they just made things up.
Here’s a news story in which the foreign teens confessed to creating news with a certain political slant. By the way, this is what “fake news” actually is — articles with elements that are completely made up. Not stories politicians don’t like.
When you misuse the term “fake news,” or worse, when you actually share news from a dubious website, you may actually be putting lives at risk. Here’s why: in the last few months, websites like Infowars have had to publicly apologize for stories they got wrong, stories that newspapers probably would never have printed for fear of being sued and losing their business. This past December, a man armed with an assault rifle ― responding to a conspiracy theory spread among nebulous “news” websites – headed into a privately owned pizzeria in Washington D.C. in order to investigate the theory himself. Luckily, police captured him before he could do any real damage, but what happens next time someone heads into a public place with weapons because he believes a story on a website that wasn’t vetted?
(Incidentally, I’m not saying conspiracy theories can’t turn out to be partly or completely true. In fact, good journalists – and there are many out there ― listen to all sides even if they have an initial bias, then pore through photos, documents, and testimony to determine the veracity of a story. The truth still matters to most reporters and readers, and I’m pretty sure the truth matters to you. So let’s fact-check what we read instead of parroting someone else’s propaganda terms like MSM.)
Understand that only a few news sources remain in this country that have the money and legal resources to fight through government lawyers and roadblocks to get to the truth (as they did during Watergate). Those outlets just happen to be the same ones that the powers-that-be want you to discredit. Political consultants earn six-figure salaries for what they do. What are you earning to help them?
This may surprise you, but even in a tough economy where newspapers are dying, more than 1,100 daily publications still exist around the United States, from the Lubbock Avalanche Journal in Texas to the Valley City Times-Record in North Dakota. Each is staffed by a raft of low-paid workers (I started in the 1990s at $17,000 per year) who presumably got into journalism for two reasons: to get to the heart of the truth, and then to inform people about it in the most user-friendly way. Once they publish their words on the page, they can’t go back and un-print them. So among outlets with a print arm, there is a boundary for what they can publish. Even a baseless libel suit can – and has ― cost a small news organization thousands of dollars to dismiss or defend, and can potentially put the publication out of business. So reporters and editors have to weigh carefully what they print. Of course, they don’t want to misreport a situation anyway; not only is it contrary to the nature of why they got into the field, but a minor mistake can damage their credibility for years. You may not agree with an individual reporter’s angle or like a particular publication – and if so, you should turn to the hundreds of others – but at least with an organization that conforms to journalistic practices, you know you’re starting with a basis in facts.
So if you believe that some mainstream news outlets are biased, simply turn that dial to the many others, or pick up a newspaper, or keep looking around for a source you trust – but don’t start calling thousands of sources “MSM” without saying which outlets you actually mean, and don’t share information from websites that may be run by Macedonian teens. Frankly, most people who use the term “MSM” are probably referring to four news outlets. Imagine if your own company or industry was discredited in the same way.
All of this is not to say that all established news sources are perfect — they’re not — or that newer outlets can’t conform to standard journalistic practices. So what’s the best way to really distinguish a “fake news” source?
Look at how (and whether) the outlet in question corrects the mistakes it does make.
Both Fox and CNN, despite criticism against them from each end of the political spectrum, have had to post visible, bold corrections when they get something wrong – and have places on their websites for consumers to reach out if they find errors. When an error is pointed out in good faith, legitimate news organizations will evolve and try to improve themselves, as some publicly pledged to do since the last election. Can you imagine a site like truthandjusticeforallespeciallyralph.tv ever printing a correction on its website?
Here is how both CNN and Fox have responded to mistakes:
-In 2014, Fox News posted a correction about an Obamacare enrollment graphic that was misleading. Years later, the video of the correction is still on their website. They also posted, this past Dec. 27, 2016, a retraction of incorrect welfare fraud numbers that they broadcast. The correction states, “The statistics reported Tuesday in a ‘Fox & Friends’ segment about 2016 food stamp fraud were incorrect. The latest USDA information, from 2009 to 2011, showed $853 million in fraud, or 1.3 percent in those three years. Nationally, food stamp trafficking is on the decline.”
(Obviously it’s concerning that they made a mistake at all, but it may have happened because – sadly ― the reporters themselves were rushing during the 24-hour news cycle and got duped by “fake news.” Frequent mistakes of this sort would definitely signal a need for radical change.)
-As for CNN, this past December, they had to eat crow when they apparently mischaracterized a conservative blogger. At the end of a now-corrected CNN Money story on-line is this message: ”Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story characterized Gateway Pundit as a website ‘designed to trick people.’ That was not accurate. The Gateway Pundit is a political blog based in St. Louis that is popular among conservatives. CNNMoney has removed that characterization and regrets the error.”
Checking the corrections of a news outlet or website will help you get a picture of how important it is for them to print the facts.
People may lie, but numbers don’t, so here’s a number to chew on: in at least three cases over the past six months, Americans have admitted publicly to posting completely fabricated election stories on their websites that went viral thanks to the public’s naivete. They tailored their stories toward what they figured people would want to hear. See if you’ve heard any of these tall tales:
-In September, a young man from Maryland earned thousands of dollars after he made up a story claiming someone happened upon tens of thousands of pre-marked ballots for Hillary Clinton.
-In November, another man admitting to earning thousands off of hoax stories circulated on Facebook, including a fake story about protestors supposedly being paid $3,500 each. He told the media, “I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.”
-In a different sort of scenario, just last month, a Florida man said he created a fake news website to test readers’ naiveté. He earned a million hits in a week and a half with stories such as one falsely claiming that Whoopi Goldberg insulted a veteran’s family. Even though he ’fessed up, the story may be recirculated for years.
Not all fake stories fall on one political side. Just after the election, the myth-busing website Snopes.com debunked rumors (which I saw spread among Democrat friends) claiming that security for the president’s family in New York would cost taxpayers $1 million per day.
Spreading fake news doesn’t make a person deplorable – just gullible.
Yet even with months of publicity about fake news, people are still getting suckered. In March, the American Press Institute and The Associated Press released study results showing that people tend to share fake news if it’s been posted by usually-trustworthy friends. Unfortunately, that’s not enough of a safeguard. With the internet allowing fake stories to spread rapidly, it’s incumbent upon all of us to research stories (and statements) before posting them, and see if the facts actually make sense. Why do people believe stories that sound outlandish, such as the one claiming an individual person was paid a whopping $3,500 to protest? Does that seem like a reasonable fee? Did YOU believe it?
We media consumers have an unwritten responsibility toward our media, and it goes beyond just armchair criticism — we need to respond to what’s being reported rather than sitting silently by and hoping the press saves us all. Back in 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a five-part series about how the city’s levies were inadequate to protect the basin from a major hurricane. Three years later, 1,800 people were killed by Hurricane Katrina. The media did its job, but did public officials follow up in time, and did readers push them to do so? The media can only do so much. Readers are part of an unstated social contract: besides giving (necessary) criticism to your media so that coverage improves, you should also serve the public good by sharing important stories, writing a letter to the editor about the coverage, and asking public officials to act based on an investigative story you read. In other words, if you’re frustrated by “the media,” try following up (reaching out to an editor or reporter in good faith) rather than giving up. You probably have a family member or friend who’s a journalist, and you know they care about what they do, why not try talking to them about their profession? Wouldn’t you want them to ask you about what you do, if someone was falsely characterizing it?
I started off by referring to the jobs held by all of you ― my various friends and social media contacts ― so here is a quick list of some of the unusual tasks my colleagues and I have done at my newspaper group over the past few years: alerted taxpayers when a mayor and council members prepared to quietly vote for hefty raises for themselves; wrote a story about a homeless family that helped get them into affordable housing; profiled Students of the Month (most stories don’t increase “ratings” but may inspire others); notified residents of plans for a huge development that would block their views, and helped a family of five find out what happened to their father, who walked out of their New Jersey home back in the 1970s and never returned. (That article arose because a coroner down South called me after a man’s body was discovered in a Georgia hotel room. The coroner said the man had told acquaintances year ago that he was from one of our towns. We wrote a story that was seen by his children, who were able to help bury him. Reporters and government aren’t diametrically opposed.)
“The media” is flawed because there are flawed people in it, but as in your profession, most work harder than you realize. Most tell stories that save lives or expose misuse of your tax dollars (so is it any wonder public officials want you to help discredit them?) By repeating anti-media generalizations while contradictorily posting stories from websites with names like fredsopinionsfromthebasement.net, you may someday miss real, dogged reporting once it’s gone. And then – just like when a tall building rises in your back yard or floodwaters start rushing into your cellar – it may be too late to act.