This particular photo was pulled from the Washington Post. The hilarity and fake news was supplied by the Internet.
In early 2015, way before “fake news” became a buzz phrase and Donald Trump made his faithful descent on the escalator at Trump Tower, another event jostled the journalism world. Brian Williams, one of the most respected broadcast journalists in the field, turned out to be a fraud.
My professor, KTLA’s John Cyrus Smith, led the class in a discussion on his fall from grace and assigned an essay where all 20 of us essentially wrote the same thing:
Journalists are the bearers of truth, and as such are responsible for honest, thorough and accurate reporting.
One reporter fabricating stories, like Williams, damages the reputation of not only the reporter but also the industry.
Such a reporter can’t expect to get a job in the future, since no outlet would want to be associated with him or her.
As it turns out, the sun didn’t set on Williams’ career, which another conversation for another day. But the point that my professor drove into us still rings true. In this age of memes, snaps and endless information, the media is still responsible for creating content with the right framework that allows people to make informed decisions.
This might seem a bit idealistic post-election. Yet, after watching Hurricane Shark go viral and reading about the White House social media director's failure to verify videos, I’ve asked myself a question that actually hasn’t come up in my discussions on media consumption:
What, if any, responsibility do non-journalists have in spreading fake news?
I’ve studied how journalism affects society. I’ve heard so many mantras about journalism’s impact that there’s a part of me that wants to say journalists are completely responsible. The definition of fake news set by the Ethical Journalism Network even seems to set the blame on creators:
“Fake news is information deliberately fabricated and published with the intention to achieve and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting venerable facts.”
Just to come clean with my personal bias, I agree with Aidan White when he wrote that the idea that fake news is rooted in the mistakes of sometimes incompetent journalists is a “political distraction from the real debate we need to have about the threat to democracy…”
Even I admit that it’s extreme to tie a meme and a White House staffer slip-up to threats of democracy, but they are still symptoms of a larger issue of how information is shared and consumed. The media and the tech platforms that host content are certainly responsible on some level. We see this through sensationalized headlines and algorithms favoring content that sparks attention, even if inaccurate. There are discussions and newsroom policy changes all over the country so that reporters can be better at their jobs in the Digital Age, and tech companies like Facebook and Google are taking more responsibility for identifying and stopping fake news.
But what about the regular joes who consume and share false information?
Well, there is already at least one way that people can get in trouble for spreading false information: libel. Say that a website, for instance, created an article about a politician who secretly kidnaps dogs and murders them with the intent to skew an upcoming election. That alone can count as libel, but the person who shares it can also be on the hook for libel. This is even if the person didn’t know that the article was libelous. Again, this is a little extreme because there’s a high threshold for content to fall under libel. A person wouldn’t, for instance, get into trouble for sharing a piece of fake news like Pope Francis supporting Trump.
Yet, I bring that this up because sharing false or inaccurate information still alters how people perceive the world. This is why Mark Zuckerberg made a public announcement on fighting fake news, journalists are fact-checking statements in real time and why some classrooms have incorporated media literacy.
As Brooke Borel wrote on the FiveThirtyEight blog, fact-checking might be a start but it also might not be enough. The economy of online content is driven by headlines that entertain and appeal to emotions like shock and anger. Many people already distrust the mainstream media despite reassurances of fact-checking. Borel ended the article with the suggestion that stopping the cycle of fake news is up to the readers. People need to fight the urge to mindlessly click through the waves of information available and share content that might be false or misleading.
“We can think before we click: Who is promoting this news? Do they have incentives to lie? And if we see our connections spreading lies, how might we confront them?” Borel wrote.
Yet, I still have knee-jerk reactions to certain types of articles and headlines, and I’ve actually worked as a reporter. So, yes, being skeptical and aware is hard. We may be overwhelmed with content, but that’s part of what makes the First Amendment so great in the first place. In theory, we have access to various ideas and points of view that compete in the so-called marketplace of ideas. In the best situation, we have the means to make informed decisions about society.
The problem, though, is what follows after enough people buy into false and even harmful ideas.
The articles I mentioned here can be found below, and I’ve added some extra links in case you want to read more on what I’ve discussed in this post. And if you want to learn about fake news games (yes, they are a thing) you can read my reviews here. Most importantly, if you agree with me or disagree, I would love to hear your opinion. Either drop a comment or reach out!
Fact-Checking Won't Save Us From Fake News (FiveThirtyEight)
Fake News: It's Not Bad Journalism, It's The Business Of Digital Communications (Ethical Journalism Network)
Facebook Fights Fake News With Links To Other Angles (TechCrunch)
Trump Aide Dan Scavino Hoaxed By Hurricane Irma Video (Washington Post)