We’ve all heard it. We’ve all seen it in headlines. We’re all to blame for the surge of “fake news.” By we, I mean ordinary citizens, journalists and those of us who feed the news cycle.
Many ordinary citizens take a headline as truth without ever reading the article or doing any research to confirm its contents. Some journalists have gotten away from objective reporting, selling sensational headlines and speculation for clicks. Too many powerful news organizations on both sides of the aisle push agendas they must uphold, cherry-picking facts that support inherent bias. And many PR pros are totally fine with spin as long as it gets placements and may lead to more budget.
So, how did we get here?
The concept of fake news isn’t something new. Countless examples of biased, fact-twisting articles, political propaganda and sensational stories can be found throughout history. Dating back before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, fake news has been used to slant opinions for the sole purpose of gaining power and influence.
News organizations often are no longer first to the scene. Smartphone-carrying citizens bring us our first glimpse of real-time news. The average person now has an active role in capturing, analyzing and distributing news and information to the masses. The Huffington Post even has its own Citizen Journalism section, for example. With that power comes great responsibility. Some are heeding the call. Others are taking advantage of the situation, ignoring journalistic ethics along the way.
Speculation: First vs. Facts
As noted in my “Reporting in the wake of tragedy” post in 2013, some of the most credible news outlets in the world put “getting it first” in front of “getting it right” in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. The nature of speculation has, over time, diluted many news organizations’ credibility. Consumers are drawing the line with outlets that are blatantly obvious in their attempts to win by speculation. “Get the facts first” is a growing sentiment.
The age of online media brought about significant change regarding how the general public consumes news, but it also changed how journalists got paid. The rise of clickbait headlines is the obvious product of pageview journalism. Sensational headlines get clicks. Some journalists now get compensated by how many clicks their stories generate (partially or completely). It all comes with a price, including the public’s declining trust in mass media.
It’s disturbing to continually see more and more people limiting themselves to news that only supports their own innate political bias. It’s even more disturbing that we have so many “news outlets” that outwardly support partisan politics. What happened to listening to both sides and coming to a rational decision based on history and facts? What happened to making sure we have a well-rounded, full view of an issue before making a decision? What happened to true debate? What happened to objective journalism?
Feelings have replaced facts. Partisan rhetoric and talking points have replaced factual, thoughtful rebuttals. PolitiFact characterized the uprising of “post-truth” as a representation of when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Sad, but true (cue James Hetfield voice).
Actor Denzel Washington was recently interviewed at an event about a fake news claim surrounding who he supported in the 2016 presidential election. Washington made his views on fake news clear: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed.” The reporter on the red carpet came back with the follow-up question: “So what do you do?” His response was telling:
“That’s a great question. What is the long-term effect of too much information? One of the effects is the need to be first, not even to be true anymore. So, what a responsibility you all have; to tell the truth. Not just to be first, but to tell the truth. We live in a society now where it’s just first. Who cares? Get it out there. We don’t care who it hurts, we don’t care who we destroy, we don’t care if it’s true. Just say it, sell it. Anything you practice you’ll get good at – including BS.”
That about sums it up, right?
The snowball effect of all these factors has finally caught up with us. We created it. It’s up to us to fix it. These simple tips may help:
- Hold journalists accountable. Check credibility through facts and sources. Period.
- Learn history. Mark Twain is often credited as saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Think about that for a while.
- Do your own research. Don’t distribute information that is inherently false, misleading or riddled with errors. Before you share that Facebook meme, take 10 minutes to research the source, the facts and figures, and whether it checks out. Context matters.
- Stop reading headlines as facts. Headlines are not necessarily facts. Headlines (especially clickbait headlines used in pageview journalism) are created to get you to click through or read further. They don’t count as cold hard truth.
- Expand your world. Arguing via social media and pointing the finger doesn’t make you an expert, it means you have cyber courage. TALK to people who think differently and who come from different backgrounds. READ and LISTEN to reputable journalists, representatives and news organizations that challenge the way you think and present differing points of view. You might learn something about yourself and those around you.
As President Obama noted after the 2016 election, we’re in a media climate where “everything is true and nothing is true.” Let’s all do our best to make sure 2017 is an accurate, credible year.