There have been a lot of words published, posted and uttered about fake news and real news and whether Americans have the tools necessary to differentiate between the two. President Trump seems to simply label stories he doesn’t like and the institutions responsible for them as fake news. This last sentence is an opinion – neither fake nor real news – yet it seems many people would like to label it one or the other.
I think most people that participate in civil society would like to be able to quickly tell the difference between real and fake news. Several of our members and state and national newspaper organizations have begun campaigns in support of increased news literacy and against intentionally false news stories. The state legislature too is considering bills that would require media literacy education.
While these efforts are laudable, I’m not sure if they attack the entire problem.
I think the term fake news describes at least three different phenomena: intentionally faked news; news that is in fact true but gets labeled as fake for political or policy advantage; and opinions that aren’t provably true or false but nonetheless get labeled as fake facts either mistakenly or in support of a political position.
I read a weather story posted on the website of a prominent metro newspaper and CNPA member during the height of the California drought. It was pretty straightforward and limited. It described the measurement of snowpack by the government snowpack measurers and what it meant at a particular point in time and based on the long years of experience of periodic measurement of snowpack, for the state’s water supply.
I was surprised to see several comments following the story and even more surprised that a commenter described the story as fake news. Once the story was labeled fake, comments snowballed. The majority of folks questioned whether the drought was real or at least had the dimensions assigned to it by government. Mostly commenters took the opportunity to rail against the various water conservation policies established by state and local authorities.
While there is a huge problem with intentionally faked stories planted for a particular nefarious purpose by people who know exactly what they are doing, the term fake news is too often used to label facts or opinions that individuals just don’t like. If those facts or opinions kindle political fervor on one side or the other, they are even more likely to be labeled fake.
In my opinion, it is even more intellectually lazy or dishonest when an entire news organization is labeled fake news.
While newspapers should do everything they can to increase civic literacy and media savvy, readers also need to understand the motivations of those who call out a story or institution as fake, especially when it is just a shorthand way to disparage the other side.
Thomas W. Newton is executive director of the Sacramento-based California News Publishers Association, of which this newspaper is a member. This piece originally appeared in California Publisher, CNPA’s official newspaper, and is reprinted with permission. Learn more at cnpa.com.