The phrase fake news entered the American lexicon during the 2016 presidential campaign. Headlines like “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide” were completely fabricated. This particular article, written by a man named Jestin Coler, was shared on Facebook over a half-million times. That kind of traffic generates income for fake news writers like Coler. (read an interview with him here)
Coler makes up fake news stories that naive people repost on social media so he can make money off of the web traffic – $10-30 thousand a month. He once fabricated a story that he saw someone buying pot with food stamps in Colorado. A state representative actually introduced legislation to make buying pot with food stamps illegal, all based on an article that was completely fabricated.
Coler runs an outfit called disinfomedia, employing over twenty writers who fabricate news for his many fake news sites. Stories that get the most traffic usually play into existing conspiracy theories. Gullible people will click on false headlines that they want to be true. Here are of the most popular fake news headlines:
- “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning the Pledge of Allegiance in Schools Nationwide” (over 2 million views).
- “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement” (a million views).
- “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder Suicide” (over a half million views).
President Trump uses fake news to refer to anyone who writes something negative about his administration. It’s a classic logical fallacy called ad hominem, where you attack your interlocutor instead of engaging the argument itself; attempt to discredit the source of the argument without having to deal with the actual elements of what they are saying.
The way the president uses the phrase fake news is misleading and wrong.
The reality is that new reporters are incredibly careful to get their stories right, and it’s a good thing because we all depend upon reporters to inform us about what government is doing on the national, state, and local levels. Reporters are incredibly important to a society that depends upon a well informed citizenry. If reporters make up fake news they are disciplined or fired by their editors.
In fact, reporters are required to conform to the SPJ code of ethics. The code sets out very clear guidelines for legitimate reporting. Here are just a few of them:
- Work must be accurate and verified, usually with two legit sources.
- Never intentionally distort facts or context.
- Never plagiarise; always attribute sources.
- Do not oversimplify or misrepresent when promoting or summarising a story.
- Gather data throughout the life of a story, i.e., keep reporting as a story unfolds.
- Identify sources clearly and consider their motives.
- Offer subjects a chance to state their side of a story, a chance to comment or explain themselves.
- Be vigilant, holding those with power accountable to the public.
- Support an open and civil exchange of views, even views you find repugnant.
- Give voice to the voiceless; seek out voices we seldom hear.
- Disclose to your readers when you are advocating something, or picking sides.
- Avoid conflicts of interest and disclose them.
- Don’t take bribes, and don’t pay sources.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers.
- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them publicly.
This is a how-to list for personal integrity. Reporters are forced to adhere to this strict code of ethics or they are disciplined or fired by their news organization. That’s part of how to tell the difference between news organizations and propaganda mills.
Forget about all of the Op-ed writers and pundits. Ignore the 24-hour cable news stations and their never ending panels of pseudo-experts and talking heads. That’s opinion, punditry, histrionics and foolishness, and the truth is that President Trump is right about much of what happens there. But that’s not the news.
The news is generated by reporters, and they are part of a noble profession. Reporters hold to a praiseworthy code of ethics or they get fired. It’s that simple. They should be revered and applauded, not attacked and maligned. We need reporters watching over every aspect of our society telling the truth about the way things really are.
Here are a few of the news sites I have bookmarked. This is where I go to get real reporting, because these institutions force their reporters to hold to the SPJ code of ethics:
- Associated Press
- New York Times
- Wall Street Journal
- Washington Post
- USA Today
- The New Yorker
- The Atlantic
- The Guardian
- The Independent
If you really have to have reporting with a right-wing slant, then at least go to sources that hold to the SPJ Code of ethics. My two favorites are: The Weekly Standard and National Review. If you really have to have reporting with a left-wing slant, these sources hold the the SPJ Code as well: The Nation and New Republic.