Without trying to lay blame for instigating it or practicing it, most of us will agree that the notion of “fake news” is a hot topic on today’s media landscape. Along with it, not surprisingly, comes a lot of baggage not to mention emotion, ire and passion.
Is there a lot of it out there? You bet.
Buzzfeed did an analysis of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and found that the top 20 fake news stories were more popular on Facebook than “the top 20 news stories on the election from 19 major media outlets.” It’s a scary thought that speaks volumes far beyond any journalistic considerations.
So let’s start with the notion itself. Just what is “fake news”? This is one of those evergreen axioms: ask 100 different people, get 100 different answers.
Is it simply lying? Are we talking about “news” that is fabricated out of thin air, or are we talking about taking a piece of legitimate news and then twisting it, bending it, or exaggerating it to the point where it resembles little of what passes as reality?
Where to turn first? OK. If it’s 2017, we first look to Wikipedia, of course.
Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that fake news is not a new, or recent phenomenon. They can trace it back to ancient Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. So much for being contemporary chic.
Wikipedia does go on to say: “Fake news is a neologism, often used to refer to fabricated news… Fake news is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention.”
There’s a lot coming out of newsrooms today that could fit that definition. Most of which any rational observer would not take issue with. Let’s agree on that.
There is, however, another aspect of “fake news” that is rarely – if ever – mentioned in polite conversation. It’s also a concept that gets some mention when the issue of media bias is raised. It’s also an intriguing element of the First Amendment’s freedom of the press concept.
Faked or biased, most will agree that the First Amendment guarantees any media outlet – from the New York Times, to CNN, to lowliest blog (present company excluded, we trust) – the right to disseminate (with some noted reservations) pretty much whatever they like. No argument there, right?
But what about the flip side? While the media is disseminating anything they like, they are also omitting whatever they dislike as well. Is omitted “news” any less faked, or biased? Does omitting whatever you like (or dislike) make you a perpetrator of “fake news”?
What an editor leaves on the cutting room floor may further the cause of “fake news” just as much, if not more, than what is actually made available to the media-consuming public. What’s not published may contribute as much to “fake news” as much as what is published. The worst part is, more so than with published news, the news that gets omitted is immeasurably more subjective.