Your Guide to Fake News, Media Bias and Fact-checking in the Post-Truth Era
I had to set the record straight. An out-of-town friend told me that she had seen a lot of “fake news” about my city. She detailed a story about massive flooding that destroyed property and displaced people.
“That really did happen,” I explained. In fact, I had walked past the flood zone, where residents of an apartment building were digging through the damage. Lines of mud streaked the building — several feet high in some areas.
But my friend, with her complete mistrust of information — from cable news to Facebook posts — insisted the story was untrue. She was sure the reports she saw were fabricated — or maybe exaggerated — and misleading.
And there I was, taking a completely different route to work because a river was streaming across a major highway for weeks.
But she was sure the story was fake.
What Are We Talking About?
When someone says, “Fake News,” we must define what they are talking about. On one end of the spectrum, unverified outlets distribute completely false information — the purest form of “fake news”. On the other, ideal end, a story would lack any bias, quote on-the-record reputable sources, and review both sides — while still maintaining some perfect moral ground.
In between those two sides is a range of content with differing quality levels of agenda setting, bias, and sourcing.
By now we’ve all agreed the term “fake news” is unhelpful, but without an alternative, we’re left awkwardly using air quotes whenever we utter the phrase. The reason we’re struggling with a replacement is because this is about more than news, it’s about the entire information ecosystem.Claire Wardle, First Draft News Research Director from Fake News. It’s Complicated.
Instead of throwing our hands up in the air to say, “Who knows what is real?” we must learn how to discern between true and false information — between opinion and facts. In this confusing information environment, people are believing and disbelieving almost anything.
Then, conspiracies are given the same attention as firsthand reporting of actual events — and sourceless memes are considered as credible as carefully researched reports. Finding the truth starts with learning to spot misinformation.
Indeed, the term “fake news” has become useless though overuse and misuse. For this reason, we must dig deeper into the terms, history and key players.
Fake news has swayed, misled and influenced our country over the history of our nation. However, critical thinking and accountability has always gotten the media back on track.
Which is why I put together a timeline of news in America. At over 5000 words, it’s not a comprehensive history. However, you’ll find glimpses of situations where We the People —including the free press— have worked together to protect our right to uncover and speak the truth.
Do Your Own Editing
To improve this cultural conundrum, we must hold media and news outlets accountable. They are not — as some might say— irretrievably broken. As newspapers — and even broadcast outlets— struggle to keep their audiences, the online market has exploded. With that, a huge amount of content creation has infiltrated our information climate — most of which is influenced by generating clicks for the almighty dollar.
Whenever you read, watch or listen to anything, you are getting one person’s interpretation of a story. And you can learn to do your own editing. Several key communication principles and theories, such as media bias and agenda setting theory, will empower you to hold your information sources accountable to the truth.
When we criticize journalists, “the media,” information sources, or online platforms, we must draw distinctions. Cable news is very different from radio — which is very different from a twitter meme. Yet, they all overlap, branch, and impact the climate of information.
Communication is a feedback loop. On every level, from interpersonal communication (one person talking to one person) to mass communication (a broadcaster to an audience), communication requires both sending and receiving a message.
This is the essence of communication theory.
With the advent of the internet, that back-and-forth access has become both faster and more opaque.
For example, have you ever thought about the fact that simply clicking on a link signals to a media company that you’re interested in that type of content. Multiply that by millions of people and they hear a bullhorn shouting back, “Give us more of this!”
We can take back more of the power in the relationship by policing our own media habits from sharing, clicking, and agreeing — to even creating content.
A Modest (Marketing) Proposal
Fake News authors generate content with the goal of generating money or power. To refocus content on truth-telling, there are several steps that media companies, content creators, and consumers should take to improve our information ecosystem.
- must openly and clearly disclose their business interests and explain their revenue models for non-subscription or advertising-funded services. This applies to software, platforms, production companies, mediums, etc.
- should seek ways to balance subscription services with free options that bring information to the general public that isn’t constrained by partnership interests.
- need to reset how the success of content is measured beyond impressions, clicks, and views — finding a better way to monetize truthful, quality information.
- must appreciate their role as communicators and take personal responsibility for the information they distribute.
- should pursue options for professional development with relation to verifying information and communicating the implications clearly.
- need to be rewarded for developing a reputation for excellence — particularly with regard to the quality and truthfulness of their content.
- must understand the consequences of filtering messages based on cognitive bias and learn to verify information by comparing a variety of sources.
- should exert self control by waiting to evaluate information before amplifying it through sharing.
- need updated education with regard to how they evaluate information for truthfulness.
- must prioritize personal accountability for the media they consume and redistribute.
As legislators both struggle to understand the complexities of how new technology has reshaped communication and risk overstepping the freedoms of the First Amendment, the marketplace can work together to build a better information environment — one that awards truth-telling.
But, you don’t need to take my word for it. Thoughtleaders throughout the industry are discussing how we can work together to improve how information is created, distributed and consumed.
“In the same way that you’re told to wait 20 minutes before you reach for a second helping of food, because you need to wait for your brain to catch up with your stomach, the same is true with information. ”
Claire Wardle, Research Director at First Draft News
“We cannot bridge divides and solve problems without listening to each other and sharing our thoughts. This requires a free flow of information and free speech, so that ideas (both good and bad) are heard.”
John Gable, CEO and Founder of AllSides
“Civically useful journalism is competing with every other form of media, content, or diversion on your phone. In that context, many people decide, as rational economic actors, they’re better off without us.”
Joshua Benton, Director of the Nieman Journalism Lab
“People, especially young people, are saying, ‘ Don’t just tell me about the bad things that are happening. Tell me how people are solving them.'”
Tina Rosenberg, Co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network
“In the end, solutions stories can turn readers’ heads. The evidence — and the data — make those heads nod in understanding.”
Brent Walth, Writer and University of Oregon School Journalism Professor
The Last Word
From the reader who reposts a dubious link to the writer who created the story to the publisher who prioritized the pay-per-click to the advertiser willing to buy those fleeting glances, we all bear responsibility for the state of our news.
The happy note? It’s also something we can fix.
Simply caring about the situation — sheer awarness — is the vital first step to fixing this mess.
So, I’d ask you to join me in keeping this conversation going. Read more about these concepts. Spread the word about bad sources. Take a moment to reflect before your react (or “like” or “retweet” or “regram”).
Most importantly, we can’t become fear-mongering, news-avoidant, sycophantic Chicken Littles — proclaiming that the sky is falling when we really just got bonked on the head with an acorn.
The sky is fine.
If you’d like to contribute to this conversation, feel free to reach out to me with your pitch for an article or essay.
All of the information and statistics included on this page were current as of August 2019.