Last Thanksgiving, while we were driving to visit extended family, we caught a segment on NPR about a man in the suburbs of Los Angeles who created fake news in order to try to expose extremist groups. His effort failed miserably, but it did highlight how easy it is to disseminate fake news.
We have heard a lot about fake news over the past year. I mean — a lot! But what does “fake news” even mean? There are websites, like The Borowitz Report and The Onion, that specialize in news satire, and, while it’s usually obvious that the stories from those sources are not “real,” sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish the satire from real news. There are also outlets like The Daily Show (originally hosted by Jon Stewart) and The Colbert Report that have been credited with covering the news better than actual news outlets. While that may be true in a sense, they are not “journalists,” and they are technically fake news, but this is also not what is meant by “fake news.” As pointed out by Sandra Borden and Chad Tew in their journal article, “The Role of Journalist and the Performance of Journalism: Ethical Lessons from “Fake” News” in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics,” “Stewart and Colbert do not share journalists’ moral commitments. Therefore, their performances are neither motivated nor constrained by these commitments … Rather than evaluating the work of Colbert and Stewart in the role of journalists, we propose analyzing their contributions to media ethics in the role of media critics.”
So if we are not talking about satire or media critique, what are we talking about? The Merriam Webster website says that “Fake news is frequently used to describe a political story which is seen as damaging to an agency, entity, or person. However, … it is by no means restricted to politics, and seems to have currency in terms of general news.” Merriam Webster also tells us that “fake news” is a new term meaning that it is only about 125 years old and “appears to have begun seeing general use at the end of the 19th century.”
So now that we know, even if vaguely, what “fake news” is, what do we do about it? The American Press Institute offers six questions to ask when evaluating a news source, but even these questions come with more questions.
- What kind of content is this? News, opinion, advertisement?
- Who and what are the sources cited and why should I believe them?
- What is the evidence and how is it vetted?
- Is the main point of the piece proven by the evidence?
- What is missing?
- More generally, am I learning everyday what I need to know to be informed?
These questions are just the beginning of the evaluation process. If you would like to learn more, the Columbia Public Library will be having a discussion on Evaluating Information in the Age of Fake News and Alternative Facts on Monday, August 7 from 7-8:30 p.m. At a time when fake news is often passed off as real and real news is discounted as fake, learning how to evaluate has become even more critical.