WHAT FAKE NEWS IS - AND ISN’T

We find it difficult to define one of the most popular hashtags of our time - because we are part of the problem

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

 "Real Fake" street art installation at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, Chicago.  Image courtesy  Wikimedia Commons .

"Real Fake" street art installation at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, Chicago.  Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” - Big Brother
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

Big Brother may have routinely turned truth on its head in George Orwell’s landmark novel.  But he did have one thing right:  If you control the language, he said, you control the argument.  

Orwell died 58 years ago, but in today’s media landscape he would recognize the increasingly indiscriminate descriptors that we attach to the facts around us.  Our choice of language seems motivated not by what the facts actually are, but by what we wish they were.   

To you, it’s healthcare reform; to me, it’s socialized medicine.   One person’s “fetid swamp” is another’s “sensitive wetland.”  Is that individual crossing the border an “illegal alien” or an “undocumented immigrant”?    Words have always been missiles, but increasingly in social media, they carry no payload.  Our subjective passions outflank objective reality.

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Take the term “fake news,” which in a previous post I noted is really nothing new.  That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever tucked a supermarket tabloid between the green beans and the paper towels.    

But what is new - and Orwellian - is the conflating of very different phenomena under that single, volatile banner.  Add in the proclivity of some public figures (no need to name names) to attach the “fake news” moniker to news they simply don’t happen to like, and further down the rabbit hole we go.  

The Newseum Institute recently took a stab at a desperately-needed elaboration on the term.  “Fake news IS deliberately misleading or false information,” the Institute wrote on Twitter. “Fake news IS NOT a biased news story, or a news story that contains errors.  We all have a responsibility to understand the difference, and help prevent the spread of fake news on social media.”

All of that is true - as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go far enough.  Here are four reasons why:  

“Fake news is NOT a biased news story.”  True - but bias is real.  Good journalists may do their best to stamp it out, but bias, deliberate or unconscious, has always been a fact of media life.  “In the nineteenth century, overtly partisan newspapers were the norm,” writes Niskanen Institute senior fellow Matt Grossman.  The Washington Post recently wrote about the reality of media bias on both the left and the right, citing a study concluding nevertheless that the net effect is close to zero.     But within individual newsrooms, bias can and does impact coverage - especially when it comes to what stories get covered in the first place.  A former NPR News executive noted that liberals significantly outnumber conservatives in that network’s newsroom, and “when you are liberal, and everyone else is as well, it is easy to fall into groupthink."


“Fake news IS deliberately misleading or false information.” True - but as any detective can tell you, understanding the motive is critical.  History has shown that disinformation is most often motivated not by bias, but by financial gain.  One of the most notorious “clickbait” episodes of 2017 was “Morgue Worker Arrested After Giving Birth to a Dead Man’s Baby” (I dare you not to click on that link).   No political motive on display - and the item itself was a total fabrication  - but it made for an irresistible, and highly profitable, headline.  


Established outlets aren’t immune to fake news.  In rare cases - and this is fake news in the purest sense of the term - so-called journalists have disgraced themselves and their craft by simply making things up.  Intercept reporter Juan Thompson was fired in 2016 for fabricating quotes in his articles, creating bogus email accounts pretending to be sources, and then lying to his editor about what he was doing.   The New York Times’s reputation was similarly tarnished by the Jayson Blair episode in 2003. 


There is reality, and there is interpretation.   Take the “fetid swamp” versus “sensitive wetland” example above.  Both describe a stagnant body of water, but in ideologically loaded ways.  Hyperbolic adjectives do not themselves make for “fake news.”   But they do help to build a more receptive audience, as people self-select to media outlets that reflect their own world views.  

You could argue that all of this should be self-evident.  But we have trouble seeing it today, precisely because our impulsive, reflexive social media culture thrives on the kind of doublespeak Orwell warned about.  It rewards sensational claims without facts.  Separate claims from facts, and you’ve created precisely the kind of environment Orwell presaged.   

Pogo, a comic strip character from the heyday of newspapers, is remembered today mostly for saying, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”   A smartphone and some Twitter followers may give us the basic trappings of a journalist.  But we fail to do the actual work of journalism. 

Which means we’ll probably continue to get all the fake news we deserve.

 

THE SLOW DEATH OF THINKING

Fake news isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom.  The real diagnosis starts between your ears

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

 Satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), from a portrait in the National Gallery, London, by Francis Bindon (died 1770) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), from a portrait in the National Gallery, London, by Francis Bindon (died 1770) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Falsehood flies,” wrote the Anglo-Irish essayist Jonathan Swift, “and the truth comes limping after it.”  Swift, whose specialty was satire, made that powerful observation way back in 1710.  Were he alive today, Swift would be thoroughly amused by our blithe assumption that the phenomenon we call “fake news” is somehow new. 

In recent months, we’ve heard of all kinds of technological fixes for fake news.   There are moves afoot to delete it before it shows up on our news feeds, and to filter it out before it hits our Facebook accounts. 

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But these well-intentioned innovations miss the mark.  What’s urgently needed is a strategy for separating reality from fakery in that ultimate inbox: the human brain. 

We used to have that, back in the day, when our brains were just about all we had.  But in the 21st century, when knowledge of all kinds seems to be just a few search terms away, critical thinking – an evidence based, analytical and open-minded thought process that was once the principal purpose of an education - is on life support around the world.  

Some would blame the rise of today’s toxic political culture for the decline of critical thinking.  I believe it’s the other way around. 

When I was a high school senior, I was fortunate enough to take an elective in critical thinking.  “This course will impact you for the rest of your life,” said my teacher, Mr. Valenti, with a sincere smile to complement his hipster beard and without a hint of Swiftian irony.  And he was right.

Contrary to popular belief, I learned that critical thinking is not just shooting holes in someone else’s ideas.  True critical thinking leaves the realm of opinion, and looks behind fundamental facts that we all take for granted. 

I learned about syllogisms and the nature of formal logic.  I learned about the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning.  And I first encountered the term “metaphysics,” which sounds arcane and elitist, but which in fact describes the hidden reality that undergirds all of what actually is. 

Without a metaphysics grounded in the innate capacity of human reason to grasp reality, we could make no sense of the world.  Our surroundings are unintelligible unless we can absorb and accurately interpret sensory data. 

There is a reason these concepts were once givens in higher education.  If our senses are not reliable in a factual empirical sense, there goes math.  There goes language and a common vocabulary.  There goes science. 

And if you define journalism as a search for truth as opposed to fiction, there goes journalism, too.  Not to mention any serious, grounded objections to fake news.

But we have slowly abandoned these ideas, first in education, and now as a culture.  And to our chagrin, we are learning that the relativism that followed - hey, I don’t care what you say, that news isn’t fake to me! – has led only to a descent into what New York Times columnist David Brooks called “a free-form demolition derby of moral confrontation...the furious intensity at every town-hall meeting on every subject.” 

This should not surprise us.  Everyone is convinced that they are objectively correct, precisely because we have allowed ourselves to become ignorant on what objective correctness really is. 

I recently spent the better part of a week training two separate groups of scientists.  Their missions were different, but both teams were struggling to explain the reams of data in front of them in terms the public would understand.  Without reason, their data would just be symbols and numbers - inaccessible, as all symbols and numbers are, until our brains receive, decode and evaluate them.

This is not a mere parlor debate.  PayScale and Future Workplace recently reported that only half of all hiring managers consider recent college graduates to be ready for the workplace.  Their biggest flaw?  Some 60 percent of employers say new grads are bereft of critical thinking skills. 

I built on my critical thinking class in high school with a college course in epistemology, which is the study of what separates truth from opinion.  Don’t know and can’t know?   Sorry, my friend - that sounds like a cop-out.   

Critical thinking, formal logic, epistemology and metaphysics were once required building blocks across much of academia.  It should be little wonder that in sidelining these disciplines of understanding, we’ve forgotten how to think. 

Restoring them to their previous place of honor will eventually go a long way toward healing the rifts in society, let alone minimizing the scourge of fake news.  And Jonathan Swift’s limping truth just might throw its crutches away. 

ETAN PATZ: A BIG SMALL STORY

The conviction of the 6-year old's killer, 38 years after the boy's unsolved disappearance, is a reminder that seemingly insignificant stories can get big, fast - and have a very long shelf life

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

 WOR newscaster Peter Roberts, circa 1966.

WOR newscaster Peter Roberts, circa 1966.

On Tuesday, May 29, 1979, at 5:15 in the morning, the veteran New York newscaster Peter Roberts is beginning to write.   I am three years out of college, and in the unlikely position of being his supervisor.  I am the morning news editor at WOR, one of the most listened-to radio stations in the country, and easily the most profitable. 

I am trying hard not to seem too green for my job.  And then Roberts speaks up.

“We should really include a few lines about Etan Patz,” he tells me.    

 Etan Patz as photographed in 1978, from a  Wikipedia page  on his disappearance.

Etan Patz as photographed in 1978, from a Wikipedia page on his disappearance.

At first, I don’t know what Roberts is talking about.   Sure, I had read over the Memorial Day weekend about the neighborhood search for the 6-year old SoHo boy who had disappeared, while walking the two blocks from his family’s loft to catch a school bus.  Hundreds of SoHo residents joined the hunt, almost spontaneously.  (Imagine Manhattanites responding to such a call today without Foursquare and smartphones?)

Etan who? The name means nothing to me.  Having read the story, and not heard it on the radio, I assume the name is pronounced Eton Pats (rhymes with seat and slats).

Roberts is a news institution on WOR.  A genteel Anglophone from Montreal, he is also a stickler for pronunciation. 

“It’s Ay-tuhn Paytz,” he says.  “Lots of people are following it, Steve.   We should, too.  It’s an important story.”

Etan Patz hasn’t made the cut for our morning rundown, and I don't see how it can.   It is already a busy Tuesday.  The NTSB is investigating the cause of a plane crash in Chicago that killed 275 people.   Israel has begun returning the Sinai to Egypt.  Margaret Thatcher is in her first month as British Prime Minister, and Pope John Paul II is preparing to visit Poland.

Besides, I know, kids go missing all the time in New York.  Many simply lose their way, and are rediscovered in a matter of minutes, or hours.  Some are taken by one parent or another, caught up in custody disputes.  A disproportionate number of these cases emanate from troubled neighborhoods, and in 1979, New York had a long list of those.

 West Broadway in New York's SoHo neighborhood as it appeared in 1974.  Courtesy  therealdeal.com .

West Broadway in New York's SoHo neighborhood as it appeared in 1974.  Courtesy therealdeal.com.

SoHo wasn’t exactly the South Bronx, of course.  But neither was it what it is today: a glossy, artsy, urban shopping center. 

Today, near the corner of Prince and Wooster Streets where young Etan disappeared, you have a Club Monaco, an Apple Store, and boutiques by designers such as Diane Von Furstenberg.   Storefronts are painted in politically correct earth tones - subdued wines, greys, and khakis.   The only clues to the neighborhood’s low-rent past are the back of a stop sign covered with bumper stickers, and a couple of mail storage boxes festooned with graffiti.

 Prince Street at the corner of Wooster Street in SoHo, as it appears today.  Image from Google Maps.

Prince Street at the corner of Wooster Street in SoHo, as it appears today.  Image from Google Maps.

But if SoHo wasn’t yet a typically upscale neighborhood in 1979, Etan’s parents weren’t typical, either. Stanley and Julie Patz were media savvy before that term became a cliche.  (Patz’s father, Stanley, was a professional photographer.)

Within hours of their son’s disappearance, they had organized an urban posse to search for him. They plastered the city with pictures of him.  They called in the papers to report on him. 

They pushed every button that existed back then – and even some buttons they had to create.  Patz’s case was critical to the establishment of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  Etan was the first missing child ever to appear on a milk carton.

And of course, they'd gotten the attention of WOR, thanks to Peter Roberts.  Because of him, we went with the story. 

On that May morning 38 years ago, my youthful instinct was that Etan Patz was a routine missing person case that would be solved quickly.  Many other big stories of that day have long been forgotten, but this one remains all too familiar. 

I carried the lesson into a long career in news.  Sometimes, it isn't just about reporting what's already big.  It's about recognizing what might become big. 

 

FOUR STEPS TO DEFLATE FAKE NEWS

The emergence of Facebook and Google as content aggregators gives new life to falsehood.   There are some simple, specific steps news consumers - and publishers - should take

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

“Nothing is new under the sun,” according to the Book of Ecclesiastes.  And although the attention fake news has gotten recently might lead you to think otherwise, there is nothing new about it. Ever since the Trojan Horse - and probably before - fakery has been integral to the human condition.  

 Run for your lives: the debunking site  snopes.com  is a critical weapon in the battle against fake news. 

Run for your lives: the debunking site snopes.com is a critical weapon in the battle against fake news. 

We fake to impress.  We fake to have fun.  We fake to gain a strategic advantage of some kind.   And of course, as anyone who’s ever stood in a supermarket checkout line knows, fake news sells.  

Back when sleazy tabloids were its primary conduit, fake news was easy to sequester in our heads and moralize about.  “I never go near that garbage,” we might claim, even as we hid it on the conveyor belt, under a few boxes of Hamburger Helper and frozen green beans, and hoped no one would notice.

Today, however, fake news isn’t just in the checkout line.  It is emanating from outlets that serve up legitimate news right alongside it - providing, at least, a thin patina of credibility.  And an increasingly dark digital stew of fact and fiction is making it tougher than ever to distinguish the real from the unreal.   (Check out the top fake news stories of the year as compiled by CNET.)

But two of the online outlets for fake news are noticeably larger and more influential than the rest.  Of late, they have become bigger than our newspapers and our networks.   And it turns out they don’t even do journalism at all.  

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In the digital equivalent of “mission creep,” Facebook and Google have steadily expanded their brief to become the primary disseminators of news around the world.   These, and companies like them, “have become extremely powerful in terms of controlling who publishes what to whom, and how that publication is monetized,” says British academic and journalist Emily Bell

A study by the marketing intelligence firm Jumpshot recently found that Facebook referrals accounted for half of total traffic to fake news sites.  But actual news sites - whose product can appear in the very same Facebook news feed - draw just 20 percent of the same audience.   In effect, aggregation has made it possible for the fake to sponge the credibility of the real, and profit handsomely in the process.  

But hang on.  Weren’t the bad old days of network dominance and media concentration supposed to be behind us?  With a multitude of voices, wasn’t the Internet promised to be the ultimate leveler - a democratizing force for news reporting and opinion?

That, of course, was before we had two organizations sitting at such critical digital choke points.  Despite the wide variety of content providers, says Bell, there is now “a far greater concentration of power than there ever has been in the past.”

Let’s restate the obvious: Facebook and Google do not do journalism.  At best, they gather it.  As the New York Times recently noted, the primary motivator for the purveyors of fake news isn’t ideological - it’s economic.  It generates revenue on ads that are tied to page views.  Page views, in turn, are tied to consecutive clicks.  And what better way to click your way to those page views than by presenting oddly compelling but fabricated stories, alongside real ones?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has recently made some noises indicating he is beginning to understand the problem.  That’s a start.  Meantime, if you believe as I do that factual reporting is a critical component to a functioning society, there are four specific things you can or should do:

If you’re a news consumer, cut out the middleman.   Get your news, not via Facebook or Google, but directly from fact-based outlets that have a history of truth telling and a commitment to accuracy.   And I’m not just talking “mainstream media” here.  Many outlets with either conservative or liberal world views can and do demonstrate that same history and commitment.   Maybe even subscribe to a few.  Some of them actually exist in print!  

If you’re a news outlet, find the courage to bypass Facebook and Google.   Almost every media outlet now needs to chase eyeballs in cyberspace.  But if your content gets mixed up with fake news, is it worth the potential cost to your overall good name?  Take steps to protect your content from being displayed in aggregators that put your reportage on the same level as yarns about space aliens.  

Become your own fact checker.   Sites like snopes.com and truthorfiction.com are indispensable for quick, accurate debunking when you see a story that doesn’t have the ring of truth.  If such a tool had existed 20-plus years ago, when my New York colleagues and I were fooled by a fake Lotto winner, this story might never have seen the light of day.  For European and international news, the non-profit fullfact.org provides a model worth emulating in other parts of the world.  It dispassionately reports facts and trends, leaving interpretation and analysis to others.  

Be alert to editorializing.  Even in so-called “mainstream” outlets that claim to separate fact from opinion, slant and outright bias can creep into articles that are billed as hard news.   How can you tell?  Here’s one oversimplified rule of thumb: hard news stories tend to address the basics - who, what, when, where, and how.   When an article starts to delve into the “why” - you’re often, although not always, entering the realm of conjecture.  

It comes down to a three word admonition we used to hear a lot more than we do today - perhaps because if it were heeded more widely, we’d miss out on a lot of the entertaining escapism that fake news often provides.

That three word warning?

“Consider the source.”