When President Trump’s long-hyped Fake News Awards dropped, they hit with a thud. First, the website glitched (and *cringe* it still doesn’t have metadata as of this publishing). Then, people blinked in confusion as the top spot went to opinion columnist, Paul Krugman. He had mused in his New York Times opinion column that the economy would suffer if Trump won the election. Since the economy did not crash, Trump declared the author the first place winner of his fake news awards.
But if you really think about it, what makes that particular claim fake news?
There were a few items on the list where news outlets had already acknowledged reporting errors. However, most of the listings were situations where the GOP felt news coverage was biased against him.
Back to Krugman, he’s an economist and often commentates on that topic. He’s not a journalist. So when he writes an opinion column predicting what he believes may happen, it’s not fair to classify that as “fake news” or even false information.
But the presentation of the label does reveal a striking lack of knowledge about who is a journalist and what really qualifies as news.
So, what are we all fighting about?
When you think about the information landscape, there are a lot of different types of content (i.e. education, advertising, or entertainment). News is one type of content that is supposed to adhere to the principles of journalism — which creates an expectation of truthfulness.
Principles of Journalism
As referenced throughout this piece, the principles of journalism are as follows:
- Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
- It’s first loyalty is to citizens
- It’s essence is discipline of verification
- It’s practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
- It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
- It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
- It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
- It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
- It’s practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience
Journalists should aspire to uphold these principles in all of their reporting and it’s the criteria on which news should be based. However, that gets a little cloudy when you think about what ends up on news mediums (i.e. newspapers, cable news, or news websites).
Types of “News” Content
A News Article or “Hard News” is defined by a strict adherence to the facts. While these pieces provide context, they really should focus on the key reporting questions found in the inverted pyramid of journalism.
Investigative News takes a deep dive into a topic, often following a story for a lengthy period of time. It usually requires the reporter to go where the story took place and “live” aspects of the news.
Columns focus on particular areas of interest, sometimes for entertainment purposes. Everything from your weekly horoscope to write-in advice columns falls into this category. Usually detail is less important than the creativity and readability of the piece. The focus of the column is often related to the expertise of the writer (like a food or movie critic), and their opinion comments on trending stories.
Editorials can be written by either staff or outside contributors. These are opinion pieces and usually comment on current events. Most of the time, outside contributors have some connection to the event, or a level of expertise to add weight to their opinion.
Profiles explore the background or character of a particular person or group. They take an “angle” on the story and dive beyond the facts to bring a story to life. While they are supposed to maintain truthfullness, they are not as objective as “hard news” articles.
When it comes to news on any medium (i.e. newspapers, magazines, television, radio, social media, websites, ect.), these basic categories apply. However, it is often clouded by newstainment, and advertising (especially native advertising) or content that appears alongside news to either sell or entertain.
Other Content Distributors
Commentators usually have their own space (i.e. Talk show, youtube channel, radio program, social media account) to air their thoughts on current events. While they may use “hard news” as a jumping point for discussion, their personality and opinion is the main draw.
- Tucker Carlson “Tucker Carlson Tonight” is a political commentator, and heir of the Swanson frozen-food fortune, with a TV show on Fox News. While he did some writing for The Weekly Standard in the 1990s, most of his work has been in creating conservative political content.
- John Oliver “Last Week Tonight” typically pulls his monologues from an assortment of news reporting and adds a commedic, liberal commentary. He has acknowledged that while his show is entertainment, and not news, local news reporters play a vital role in how his own team verifies information. “Whenever this show is mistakenly called journalism, it’s a slap in the face to the journalists whose reporting we actually rely on,” Oliver pointed out in one of his segments.
- Sean Hannity has spent most of his career on conservative radio and television, running various types of talk shows. Hannity himself has pointed out that he is not a journalist and is not reporting news when he runs his segments. He even goes on the campaign trail with candidates that he supports.
- Tomi Lauren is a political commentator and a former host on TheBlaze, a conservative media outlet. Her “final thoughts” at the end of her segments often went viral as she commented on current events. She has said, ““I fully acknowledge that I am not a journalist. I clearly have a point of view, I am very passionate about my point of view. I am a commentator.””
- Samantha Bee “Full Frontal” usually takes current events and turns them into comedy, like many late show hosts and comedians. She is not a journalist and her segments often gain popularity for dovetailing with current events.
Social Media Personalities (or influencers) and bloggers garner a large audience by sharing content, often on timely or “trending” topics. Their personal brand, usually in a specific niche, is the main basis for the information they choose to create or distribute.
- Carlos Maza “Strikethrough on Vox” exemplifies the blurry line between influencer/blogger and journalists. Much of his work falls into the “opinion news” area but, he reports facts within explainers that align with his worldview. His series, Maza himself, has become a huge target of the Alt Right and white supremicists.
- Jacob Wohl is often described as an internet troll, or more generously as a conspiracy theorist and fraudster with right-wing political leanings. Recently, he gained national attention for tricking men into saying Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigeg sexually assaulted them and plotting a similar conspiracy about Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
- Trae Crowder “The Liberal Redneck” is a comedian and social media personality who has garnered a huge following by turning southern political stereotypes on their head.
Activists and politicians can become a strong voice by appealing to those with affiliated interests. They create and distribute content both in response to and in an effort to shape the news. Typically, they can be identified as “not journalists” because they are employed by an organization or hold a public office.
Organizations, non-profit and for profit, and the government tend to take a role as thought-leaders in their area. They create news (by taking action) and influence news (by commenting on current events).
News and fake news has become clouded as information spreads in a variety of formats (some of which are not even supposed to be news).
While one-in-five Americans (21%) have a lot of trust in the information they get from national news organizations, that share is about five times as high as the portion that have a lot of trust in the information they get from social media sites (4%). And few Republicans or Democrats express a lot of trust in the information they get from social media (3% and 6%, respectively).Pew Research Center
As a result, we see people take action because of false information. Take for example, Pizzagate, a viral and debunked conservative conspiracy theory, caused intended mass shooter Edgar Maddison Welch to attack the Comet Ping Pong restaurant. He believed stories, which were pushed by Trump loyalist and designate for National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn, that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring from the location.
Things to Look For
Whether it’s the moral panic of the Momo challenge or Alex Jones’ Sandy Hook Conspiracy, people are getting their information, their news, from dubious sources. If you wish you could get your news without layers of opinion and commentary, you’re actually in the majority.
…81% of U.S. adults who prefer facts without interpretation believe fact-checking is a major or minor responsibility of the news media. About the same share of those who prefer interpretation, 83%, think fact-checking is a responsibility.Pew Research Center
Unfortunately, finding that kind of news, is getting harder and harder as local media outlets are quickly being absorbed by national brands, commentary consistently gains more attention than hard facts and everyone (even you) plays a role in generating and distributing content.
Here are a few things to look for when as you try to parse your news sources.
Trending stories should be questioned with regard to their significance. Often, something obscure but, provocative will gain national attention — even if it is not particularly newsworthy or relevant. This is one of the many reasons why Facebook decided to take the column off your newsfeed. It’s not always a good reflection of what’s really going on. Trending just means that a lot of people were interested and clicked. From a gatekeeping perspective, that’s a really skewed way to set a media agenda. As a media consumer, you can filter this by evaluating the newsworthiness yourself.
Context matters when evaluating a story. So many questionable citations, and practices like P-hacking, can be put to rest by understanding the context of the claims. Go to the original source of the information whenever possible. If the content doesn’t cite a source and take the time to go through the context, then you should wait before taking the claim seriously.
Self Regulation, through the form of retractions, edits, and corrections, show that a content creator is willing to take responsibility for what they say. If the person, or brand you follow never corrects themselves, that should immediately raise concern. Furthermore, if they dig in whenever the story evolves or new facts arise, that means they’re less committed to the truth than they are to their stance.
How About Your Favorites?
As you think about your main sources for news, look up to see if they are journalists. Maybe you rely on apps that aggregate headlines. Perhaps you enjoy listening to top stories from your favorite radio D.J. Even if you are reading something from a news outlet, you must evaluate the story in light of the principles of journalism. If it’s an opinion, if the facts are missing, or if the content creator does not behave according to journalistic norms, weigh that into how you evaluate the story.
Back to Paul Krugman at the beginning of this piece. Do you see why it’s so baffling that he was labelled as the winner of the “fake news” awards?
He’s not a journalist — he’s an economist who gives his expert opinion to news outlets. And even if he was wrong in his economic prediction, that doesn’t mean he created fake news. It just means, his best guess turned out to be inaccurate.
- Majority of U.S. adults think news media should not add interpretation to the facts
- Full Fact has been fact-checking Facebook posts for six months. Here’s what they think needs to change
- Snopes Junk News archive
- The Mandela Effect
- Inside the Macedonian Fake-News Complex
- Why do people post fake news?
- The Fake News Fallacy
- The “winners” of Trump’s fake news awards, annotated