June 3, 2023

Fake news: Do not let them fool you

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

“Fake news” is defined as the intentional spread of misleading or false information. By mid-2016, Craig Silverman, who now works at BuzzFeed News, used the label to categorize bombastic false news such “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” which originated in Macedonia and propagated on Facebook.

Those types of easily invented headlines rewarded their fabricators as the model of online business is “more traffic (clicks), more money.”

President Donald Trump has his own beliefs about fake news. Last October, in a press conference during the visit of his Finnish counterpart, he credited himself with coining the phrase. Fact-checkers of the Washington Post counted that as one of Trump’s 19,127 presidential inaccuracies in 1,226 days (as of June 1) while in office.  

Trump may, however, be among the most frequent users of the label: when questioned, he normally accuses journalists of fabricating “fake news.” He abhors transparency.

“Fake news is any credible reporting that Trump and his adherents do not like,” wrote Mackenzie & Bhatt (“Lies, Bull—- and Fake News: Some Epistemological Concerns”)

In a democracy, elected officials and particularly the president’s accountability is non-negotiable. Unfortunately, the president’s undemocratic behavior has enlisted hundreds of followers who, when fact-checked, also accuse responsible journalists of creating “fake news.” Such accusations are further amplified by irresponsible sectors of the media.

“The institution of a free press in America is presently in a state of crisis greater than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and perhaps in any moment in this nation’s history,” journalists Dan Rather & Kirshner wrote.

One should remember that maintaining a democracy depends on citizens who vote and thereafter hold officials accountable (i.e., “question a government that works for you,” in the words of Sue Cross {Global Investigative Journalists Network}). Vote casting and accountability demand, to be effective, need accurate information. The only way to obtain truthful news is by active search.

Therefore, it’s necessary first to recognize websites and sources that verify news accuracy and second to identify mainstream and independent sources that provide news that is reliable and properly inserted in context.

Indeed, “fake news” has hit home: a common complaint from students at Northampton Community College is being unable to distinguish fake from real news. Even worse, students think “they are all the same” (i.e., the sources of news don’t matter).

Where do students get their news? “Project Information Literacy,” supported by the Association of Colleges & Research Libraries, surveyed more than 6,000 students. It concluded that 70-90% of students get news from social media, mainly from Facebook; 50-90% of students are interested on national government and politics; 82% believe news to be necessary in a democracy.

On a broader scope, almost half of Americans overall (47%) get their news from social media, again with Facebook as the dominant force. Given the 24/7 cycle of online news, the easiness of posting and information overflow — regardless of accuracy — make this a worrisome platform.

In the words of Mackenzie & Bhatt, “the sheer volume of information now makes it difficult to know what information to trust.” Even experts are having difficulty unmasking doctoring in printed news, pictures and videos, according to the The Guardian.  

That’s why, empowering individuals to be able to differentiate real from “fake news” is the first step to counterattack misinformation.

Why it’s important to stay well-informed:

In the U.S., 536 elected officials (one president, 100 Senators and 435 Representatives) largely affect the lives of the population of 330 million. The power of these officials goes from determining billion-dollar budgets to ordering the drop of an atomic bomb, if circumstances thus dictate.

Countless on-the-job challenges await these officials in dealing with issues of an ethnically and socially heterogeneous population of more than one-third of a billion people, the largest economy in the world ($22 Trillion GDP), government regulated through a massive bureaucracy — layers and layers of documents generated and assessed by more than 2.5 million bureaucrats.

Adding the individual and partisan interests of officials to these factors it’s clear that involuntary or even voluntary mistakes can occur and ultimately be disadvantageous to the American people.

Since the ordinary citizens are busy “living their lives,” preoccupied with jobs and families, journalists “work as your eyes and ears in places you can’t be; the press is the people you send into rooms to witness what your government is doing and tell you about,” Cross said.

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin understood the significance of journalism; above all he was a publisher and made his Pennsylvania Gazette social, political and culturally substantial.

Centuries after Franklin, responsible journalism continued contributing to society: on the political side, investigations such as the Pentagon Papers (New York Times) and Watergate (The Washington Post), ultimately yielded the end of the Vietnam war and the end of Nixon’s presidency.

On the social side, the Spotlight investigation of the Boston Globe’s exposed decades-long sexual abuses of Catholic priests on children.

On the taxation and law compliance side, the “Panama Papers,” a gigantic international journalistic effort enabled the recovery of more than $1.2 billion in unpaid taxes and worldwide criminal operations — money laundering among them. As these examples demonstrate, even more important than being factually informed (isolated facts) is having the news in perspective, understanding their context.

As to the format of news reaching the public, things have dramatically changed since Franklin. The original medium, newspaper, was successively, over decades, joined by radio, TV, the World Wide Web and cable TV. Responsible newspapers strictly follow the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). (See: Box 1 below)

Rare violation of such code has led major outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC to fire journalists. In contrast, other outlets such as Facebook and cable TV are not explicitly committed to objectivity.

“Facebook again refuses to ban political ads, even false ones,” warned journalists Ortutay & Anderson from the Associated Press in early January. Additionally, cable TV stations take sides: “editorial positions and story selection favor either the right [Fox News] or the left [CNN and MSNBC],” according to Media Bias / Fact Check.

It’s relevant to refer to two examples of “fake news.” First, when various people linked to the current administration underwent criminal investigation, government officials vehemently denied any charges. “Fake news,” they said. It was that familiar reaction, expressed by MacKenzie & Bhatt, as “what Trump is railing against is that the news may be truthful, factual and representative of reality.”

It turned out that journalists were correct. Crimes were real. Embarrassing imprisonments followed: Michael Cohen (the president’s former lawyer and adviser), Michael Flynn (National Security Adviser for 24 days), Paul Manafort (2016 presidential campaign manager), Roger Stone (the president’s former adviser) to mention a few.  

The second example is the COVID-19 coverage, a systematic campaign of misinformation by irresponsible media outlets — Fox News particularly — sampled on YouTube as Trevor Noah’s “Pandumbic.”.

Aligned with irresponsible elected officials, Fox News downplayed the coronavirus pandemic and repeatedly discredited experts. (See: Box 2). Time proved them wrong.

In a few months COVID-19 has taken over America. The results are catastrophic. As of June 4, more than 123,000 deaths have been recorded, more than 42 million are unemployed (exceeding the Great Depression) and pension investments have devaluated by one-fifth.

Unfortunately, the pandemic’s end is not near.

The current sociopolitical climate is not receptive to responsible journalism. The reliable Poynter Institute for Media Studies denounced the hateful and harmful rhetoric; elected and non-elected officials such as Steve Bannon once an influential presidential strategist, called journalists “the enemy of the people, the opposition party.”

Cross mentioned physical attacks in Denver and Milwaukee to journalists working for affiliates of the Institute for Nonprofit News.

“We’re not going to shut up. We’re going to keep reporting so that you can read what you want, make your own judgements and question a government that works for you,” said Cross.

In addition to fact-checking elected officials and intensifying investigations, in August 2018, 350 newspapers (plus 170 affiliates of the Institute for Nonprofit News) in the U.S. called to end Trump’s harassment of press.

Furthermore, 74 journalism professors wrote a letter to Fox News condemning the COVID-19 misinformation campaign.

Initiatives as such keep Thomas Jefferson’s ideals alive: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press.”

Where to go for accuracy check and reliable information:

For responsible journalists, gathering information in times of “fake news” is not easy. Once the information is out there, however, it’s up to responsible citizens to actively harvest. Four main sources standout: 

  • Accuracy check: Harvard University Library. Its tab ”’Fake News’, Disinformation, and Propaganda” offers tips and refers to sites that unmask false information, such as Media Bias/Fact Check, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.
  • Mainstream news: New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The BBC, The Economist.

According to professor Noah Chomsky, because mainstream media is for profit and is dependent on advertisement for survival, there is a potential limitation on what news is covered and how it is covered (“Manufacturing of Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media”).

Identifying independent sources of accurate news is critical.

  • Independent news: Academia-related such as Columbia Journalism Review, CJR (Fall 2019 issue focuses on misinformation) and Harvard’s Nieman Lab, as well as the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. There is also the Institute for Nonprofit News, with 250 members in the U.S. National Public Radio, with audio (radio and podcasts) and online presence.
  • Nonprofit news organizations with international reach: the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that released the “Panama Papers,” and the Global Investigative Journalism Network (IGIJN), important for investigative journalists training and  public information.

In a confusing news climate, citizens can no longer receive news uncritically. Unless they do their homework (i.e., fact-checking, identifying and consulting reliable sources {See: Box 3}) unscrupulous officials and their adherents will continue creating and spreading “fake news”.

Do not let them fool you.

Box 1

SPJ Code of Ethics.

– Seek truth and report it (ethical journalism should be accurate and fair; journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information).

-Minimize harm (treat sources, subjects, colleagues and member of the public as human beings deserving of respect).

-Act independently (the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public).

-Be accountable and transparent (taking responsibility for one’s and explaining one’s decision to the public).

Box 2

Misinformation campaign during the pandemic

-Sean Hannity – Fox News “Yes. We’re live reporting from the swamp, the sewer that is Washington D.C. Tonight I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We’re all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent and you’re all going to die,” he said sarcastically. (2/27/20)

-Rep. Devin Nunes. ‘If you’re healthy, you and your family, it’s a great time to just go out. (3/15/20)

-Texas’ Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “There Are More Important Things Than Living” (3/21/20)



Box 3

Links to free reliable news:

Columbia Journalism Review https://www.cjr.org/

Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN)  https://gijn.org/about/about-us/

Harvard Library https://guides.library.harvard.edu/fake

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) https://offshoreleaks.icij.org/

Institute for Nonprofit News https://inn.org/members/

The Poynter Institute for Media Studies https://www.poynter.org/

Jesus Zaldivar

Jesus Zaldivar, contributor to The Commuter, is a Media Production student at NCC. Previously, he conducted biomedical / environmental research in South America, Europe and six states in the U.S. (Contact: jesus.zaldivar@student.northampton.edu)

View all posts by Jesus Zaldivar →
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