“Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” This is the preamble to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. A journalist’s singular priority is to seek truth and report on it. This requires the freedom to act independently and the responsibility to be accountable and transparent.
In the past, news organizations were divided into three main parts: news, editorial and advertising. This is still the case with the most respected and prestigious print publications, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and many others, including this newspaper. However, with the advent of radio, then TV, then the Internet, then social media, the once clear lines between facts and opinions, actual stories and mere advertisements, have become thoroughly blurred, if not obliterated. This change has been insidious, corrosive and destructive to democracy. For many Americans, it has become increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction, proper news from propaganda, attitude from actuality. Is a Fox “News” commentator reporting the news or fabricating it? Is a Facebook comment based on facts or merely well-packaged nonsense?
Many of the largest and most successful media outlets today do not focus on the truth. Instead, like all other corporations, they are focused on profit. And what’s profitable in publishing? Entertainment, the truth be damned.
There is nothing new about this. Late 19th century “yellow journalism” was all about sensationalism — the facts were often elided and narratives fabricated to titillate the reader and sell more newspapers. Today we would call this “fake news,” the definition of which is simple: untrue information presented as factual news.
Fake news has more guises than a theater actor. Here are a few:
1. Propaganda: untruthful information used to promote or protect a specific political position.
2. False news: reporters or commentators presenting information that is untrue, but presented in a way that is meant to appear honest and forthright.
3. Fabricated content: news that never happened in the first place.
4. Manipulated content: news that is twisted to promote a specific vision of events.
5. False narratives: interviews of people known to be lying.
Thankfully, there are many ways to distinguish fake news from real news, although it requires commitment and effort by the consumer. Here are some guidelines.
1. Check the source. Is the information from a reliable publication?
2. Check the documentation. Is there attribution for the information and quotes? Are their reference links?
3. Check the facts. When a statement or statistic is given, do your own homework. Google it. Here are the best fact-checking sites: Factcheck.org, opensecrets.org, politifact.com, snopes.com, tineye.com, washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker.
4. Check the About Us section. What is this news organization all about? Is there an obvious bias?
5. Check the comments section. Sometimes experts will call out fake news. Then again, sometimes ignoramuses will do the same thing for real news.
6. Verify the basic elements of the story by checking to see if it has also been published in reputable publications.
It is your responsibility to ensure that you are reading, watching or listening to news that is accurate and unbiased. It is essential to get your news from a diverse array of media outlets, not a single source.
Avoid news from obviously biased sources, such as religious institutions and hyper-partisan websites.
Get off Facebook (a purveyor of rabbithole mis/disinformation) and subscribe to your local newspaper. Read more, watch less.
Remember that science is based on facts, opinion is not. Fake news can be created by fake or discredited scientists, so check peer-reviewed scientific journals to find the truth.
Do not confuse the message with the messenger. Good journalists are trying to present facts in context in a very complicated world. If you don’t like the facts, don’t blame the journalist. When the facts don’t comport with your own opinion, you will experience cognitive dissonance, a confusing, uncomfortable feeling. Forget your personal opinion and go with the facts. Strive to think analytically, not emotionally. Ignore the hyenas of hate and hyperbole.
In the end, the singular priority of a news consumer is precisely that of a journalist: to seek the truth.