The term “fake news” actually refers to a very real phenomenon: the proliferation, particularly online, of questionably or inadequately sourced – and, in some cases, outright fabricated – reporting. Such content is intentionally designed to mislead, often imitating the look of legitimate news operations in order to deceive consumers.
It is not inherently a political concept, but lately it has become one. The words “fake news” have been hijacked by some practitioners of America’s ever-coarsening political dialogue, particularly those who seek to limit the influence of watchdog journalism. The lazy catchphrase is favored by barking, ALL CAPS-ing public officials who are unwilling or unable to craft coherent, rational responses to balanced reporting or reasoned criticism. This is politics at its least sophisticated, but it seems to be somewhat effective – at least within segments of the population that fail to differentiate between professional, ethical newsgathering and wholly contrived misinformation.
The tug-of-war between politicians and journalists is nothing new, but the polarization of contemporary society draws new battle lines. Audiences gravitate toward news that reinforces preconceived notions while recoiling from news that challenges them, regardless of the verifiability of the information. The real and the fake intermingle in Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines, where cascades of headlines overpower readers’ capacity to split what they see into “true” and “false” piles. This plays into the hands of some opportunistic politicians, who eagerly knead the mishmash of fact and fiction by bellowling about the “fake news media” – an entity that certainly exists, just not nearly on the scale that these partisans want us to believe.
The divisions in America are rooted in genuine and healthy disagreements about the best future for our nation. But our political process is weakened, sometimes even crippled, by a cancerous viciousness that is fed in large degree by our retreat from facts. In The Washington Post’s recently established motto – “Democracy dies in darkness” – the word “darkness” is as much a reference to blatant falsehoods as it is to the increasingly blurred line between truth and fiction.
We acknowledge that even the most responsible news organizations are imperfect. Mistakes are made, and high standards of fairness, balance and accuracy are not always met. But imperfection is not malfeasance. It is not fraud. It is not fake. Yet, if we choose to toss ethical but perhaps flawed reporting onto the same scrap heap where we discard recklessly exploitative rubbish, the heap will eventually block the sun, blanketing America in the darkness The Washington Post warns of.
Contrary to the bleating of some pundits, it is not the responsibility of legitimate news outlets to become less fake – they can’t do that, anyway, because they are not fake to begin with. Nor should proper media attempt to indulge the preconceptions or inclinations of their audiences, as others have suggested. Instead, the current climate calls for professional reporters to reaffirm their commitment to impartiality and accuracy. After all, the mission of an independent, free press is to lead society through the maelstrom of misdirection, not to contribute to the chaos.
Of course, legitimate news outlets can do a better job educating audiences about the standards and ethics that separate principled reporting from dishonest distortion. Ultimately, however, the onus falls on the public itself. Unless consumers take it upon themselves to identify – and demand to see – the hallmarks of responsible newsgathering, there will be no path into the light.
Fortunately, resources are available. For instance, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Warren County Public Library’s Bob Kirby Branch will host a panel discussion about the “fake news” concept. Journalism experts from local media and Western Kentucky University will talk about the differences between ethical and unethical publishing and how audiences can distinguish them.
“Fake news” is not merely a media problem. It is an outgrowth of America’s ugly, combative approach to political and social issues. Rest assured, the real news media will not back down from its pursuit of truth. But until the public better understands what should and should not be trusted, the darkness will continue to spread.