Well before Google and Facebook became common household words, there were already many different incarnations of what we’ve started calling “fake news.” Supermarket tabloids heralding dubious evidence for the existence of UFOs or the latest celebrity scandals are among fake news’ closest ancestors. The famous 1938 broadcast of director Orson Welles’ radio drama, War of the Worlds, fooled audiences into thinking Martians had invaded Earth. Tellingly, Welles revealed that the production company was motivated, in part, by a desire to teach the public about the dangers of uncritical acceptance of news on the new technology of radio (Schwartz). Indeed, as early as 1475, false reports of Jews abducting and drinking the blood of children have been used to agitate a credulous public against a common scapegoat (Soll).
More recently, several prominent contemporary journalists have been disciplined for lapses in journalistic integrity that include exaggerating for dramatic effect (NBC’s Brian Williams), giving undue credence to their informants (The New York Times’ Judith Miller), and outright fabrication (The New York Times’ Jayson Blair). These eyebrow-raising lapses by journalists working for highly reputable news outlets all defy a clear code of ethics for journalists.
Other variants in the “not quite news” category include segments on late night comedy shows such as The Daily Show or even Saturday Night Live. They may mention events documented by journalists following established procedures for verification of facts, but they clearly present themselves as humor, not journalism. We might also include in this category the nightly pundit shows that satisfy the 24-hour news cycle’s voracious appetite for content. Like late night comedy shows, pundits add commentary but can’t be properly described as producing reporting that meets journalistic standards.
Advertising also plays an important role in determining the content of our media whether we’re talking about print, television, or digital. Fake news’ defining characteristic is that its authors willingly report falsehoods to garner clicks on a story’s link. All this works in the interest of making money from web content through online advertising services such as Google’s AdSense. To add to the confusion, fake news websites may even have misleading URLs that mimic popular media sites like USAToday.com.co or WashingtonPost.com.co. Furthermore, the global nature of digital communication means that this is a problem both in the U.S. and internationally.
So what ISN’T fake news? When a major news organization reports on news that we don’t like or that is eventually proven incorrect, that does not qualify as “fake news” if it was based on credible sources. Similarly, if a news organization reports on a public leader who says something false, that is not fake news if the public leader actually said it. Major news organizations like CNN reported prior to the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton would win in a landslide. Were they reporting fake news? No, they were reporting the results of national polls — and polls can be wrong.
News media has its own bias as well. This infographic attempts to show the liberal and conservative leanings of many major news organizations, but we may also consider whether the infographic itself might also be biased. What do you think?
To help us get better at spotting fake news, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions has created a handy infographic that recommends several ways to evaluate the news we hear and see. In addition, non-partisan fact-checking websites like Snopes, Politifact, and FactCheck.org easily debunk hoaxes while also providing context on how a hoax or “fake news” report began. Finally, the Monroe Library is also here to help you sift through an increasingly unnavigable and often misleading media landscape. For more info, see our research guides on Fake News and Evaluating Web Pages, or contact your library liaison for help.
IFLA infographic based on FactCheck.org’s 2016 article “How to Spot Fake News” in PDF format