The media is going absolutely bonkers over the emergence of what is being called “fake news” popping up all over social media. Following the election, the media seems to be exhibiting a type of postpartum depression caused by the sudden lack of attention-grabbing “news” to report. Seeking to fill this void, the media has raised the fearful specter of “fake news” polluting their well of “real news.” Such news reports by the media are, in and of itself, faked news. For the media to “cry wolf” about fake news is like a politician self-righteously decrying hypocrisy in politics. And don’t fall prey to the pathetic media excuse that the habitat of “fake news” is only Facebook and fringe web sites. (Some suggest that “fake news” started when the Old Testament reported that God created the earth in seven days.)
The reality is that virtually all news is “fake news” in some form or another. It has always been that way and most likely always will be. The reason for this is simple: To survive (not to mention make a profit) newspapers and magazines have to give you a reason to buy their product and television has to attract viewers. The media moguls learned long ago that dramatic, salacious, sensational, spicy and even over-the-top exaggerated stories are what sells papers and puts people in front of the television.
Fake news can be like a rolling stone that picks up momentum as it goes along …
There are legions of almost daily examples of this type of approach to “journalism,” but one example can serve as a surrogate for the many. During 2014 there was ongoing coverage of what was described (by the media anyway) as an epidemic of sexual abuse on college campuses. In early November that year Rolling Stone magazine came forth with high-powered publicity campaign touting a soon to be released documented expose of rampant sexual abuse on college campuses. Representatives of Rolling Stone appeared on cable and network television shows hyping the soon to be released article.
The article, salaciously titled, “A Rape on Campus” was published in the November 19 issue of the magazine. The article purported to describe a young coed “gang raped” at a fraternity party on the campus of the University of Virginia. The publicity and outrage generated by the story was enormous, but it soon became clear that this story was nothing but “fake news.” It turned out the so-called “victim” had fabricated the entire story. As other media outlets showed, it would have taken very little effort on the part of Rolling Stone editors to debunk the story before it was published. But infected with a fever to gain needed publicity for the magazine and increase sales, journalistic ethics were compromised.
It depends on what you want the news to be …
Not to be discounted in the reporting of “fake news” is the reality that most, if not all, media outlets have their own particular slant to the “news” they report. This often thinly disguised bias is targeted to appeal to a specific segment of potential readers or viewers. Rather than an honest effort to educate and inform, media outlets will (to be kind) slant their news coverage in such a way so as to appeal to the pre-conceived notions of their target audience. Elements of the news that fit the desired viewpoint are reported in depth, while points that may lead to a different conclusion are short-shifted or ignored.
The New York Times declares on its masthead, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” but all the news that’s fit to print most often appeals only to the eastern, liberal establishment. By its very name, The Wall Street Journal signals its target audience and its articles reflect it. Fox News (an oxymoron if I’ve even heard one) claims to be “fair and balanced,” but the focus of its coverage is anything but that and is intended to attract an audience that believes big government is nothing more than an evil conspiracy threatening their freedom. On the other hand, MSNBC seems to target its programming at those who believe they need big government to protect their freedom.
The point is that all this media prejudice when reporting the news from a particular point of view pollutes that news and in essence makes it fake.
Separating fake from the real news …
No doubt about it, it is difficult to scrutinize a news story to determine what is real and what is slanted opinion, but it can be done. The reason many of us are susceptible to fake news is because it appeals to the notion of what we want the news to be. Since we agree with it, it is easy to accept it. The problem is that this takes away our ability to question and challenge what we hear or read. There are (at least) two sides to every story and unless we are willing to make the effort to understand all viewpoints of an issue, we are at risk of falling prey to fake news.
When we react in a knee-jerk fashion to a media story – either for or against – without questioning or challenging its intent and voracity, we leave ourselves vulnerable to being manipulated
The reality is that if we don’t know enough to recognize that the news we are reading or watching is slanted toward a particular viewpoint, we don’t know enough. If we find ourselves in agreement with all the news we read or view, we are not getting enough news. Only by being willing to expand the horizons of the sources of the information we receive can we gain a perspective that will allow us to determine the difference between real and fake news.