Once upon a time, “fake news” was a term reserved primarily for the kind of stories you’d find in the Weekly World News or the National Enquirer: “Bat Child Found In Cave!” or “Rita Hayworth Says...I'm Back From The Dead: For Two Years I Was a Zombie”; that kind of thing. “Fake news” had a very specific connotation: it was news that had no basis in reality, no credible evidence to support its assertions, and was designed to shock people into reading.
That is, of course, until Donald Trump came along.
The proliferation of the term “fake news” might well end up being Trump’s legacy (assuming we somehow avoid nuclear war, which is by no means a foregone conclusion). Trump had danced around the term on the campaign trail, but in his first press conference as President-elect, he brought out the big guns. Trump pointed to CNN’s Jim Acosta, loudly and definitely-not-insanely declaring “You are fake news!”
Many of Trump’s supporters ate it up. In Trump, they felt they had a President who would call the mainstream media on its clear liberal bias and its obvious (to them) habit of undercutting prominent conservatives and silencing the voices of Real Americans™. That press conference reintroduced the term to our lexicon, and since then, Trump supporters have lobbed it at every media outlet that publishes or reports on anything that makes Trump look bad.
To be clear, both sides — liberal and conservative — have begun using the term. That said, the term is unquestionably more popular and more frequently used on the right than it is on the left. While it’s certainly a pithy dismissal and a convenient deflection from a given topic, its meaning has already been perverted to such a degree that the term itself is effectively meaningless. So if we insist on continuing to use it, it’s worth re-establishing exactly what “fake news” means. To do that, we need to understand what it doesn’t mean.
On Wednesday, NBC News published a report that in late July, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” in a meeting with Pentagon officials. NBC also reported that Tillerson was on the verge of resigning in late July and had to be talked down from doing so by Vice President Pence.
After the report surfaced, Tillerson called a press conference in which he claimed not to have made disparaging remarks about Trump and insisted he had never contemplated resignation. In response, Trump tweeted “The @NBCNews story has just been totally refuted by Sec. Tillerson and @VP Pence. It is #FakeNews. They should issue an apology to AMERICA!”
This seems like a perfect case study, don’t you think? Let’s get started.
1. The editorial process exists for a reason
To someone not following the story, Trump’s tweet and his use of the word “refuted” would seem to indicate that Tillerson offered some kind of evidence that he never called Trump a moron. Based on that word, the reader would inevitably conclude that, yes, the story must have been falsified and that NBC News was merely making up a story to embarrass the president. But Tillerson didn’t refute anything — he didn’t disprove the allegations, and the sources didn’t change their story. He simply denied it, as anybody would do if they called their boss a moron in private and their boss found out.
From a common-sense perspective, we should be more skeptical of Tillerson’s denial than of the initial report. After all, Tillerson has everything to lose by confirming this story, while NBC has little (if anything) to gain from making it up. If you’re still not convinced, let me remind you of the editorial process that’s in place at any legitimate news outlet.
The New York Times, for example, has a 57-page handbook on journalism ethics, and it has strict editorial guidelines on the integrity of its reporting. Each shop has its own guidelines, but any established news outlet has rigid standards of verification and confirmation. News outlets largely police themselves because it’s in their own best interest to do so — as the fiasco at CNN and the resultant backlash proved, all it takes is one story to completely damage an outlet’s reputation. If a smaller, less-established outlet had made an error of that magnitude, they would’ve been better off closing up shop.
If the NBC News story was made up, odds are we never would have heard about it, for two reasons. First, very few journalists would risk their reputation (and, therefore, their career) on a story like this, and those that might would likely never be hired by a reputable news outlet. Second, no editor would publish a story like this without being absolutely confident that they could stand by the reporting. In the journalism industry, a retraction is a death sentence.
2. “Biased” does not mean “fake”
Unless you’re getting your news directly from the source (i.e., firsthand accounts or from wire services like Reuters or AP), there’s a decent chance that the news you consume is coming to you from a secondary outlet: the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, and so on. While these outlets typically do have some sort of overall institutional leaning, a lot of people automatically assume an outlet’s reporting is invalid or tainted because of it.
It is inescapable that most human beings will form an opinion about a piece of information when they receive it, and some of these human beings will be journalists. Therefore, in the minds of some Trump supporters, any journalist who publishes an unflattering or critical account of one of Trump’s many missteps is automatically dismissed as hopelessly biased and incapable of telling the real truth.
Biases are natural to everybody, journalists included. But journalists know the difference between reporting and editorializing, and they know better than to inject their personal opinions into their reporting — that’s someone else’s job. Their job is simply to uncover information, verify it, and present it to their audience. It’s also worth mentioning the editorial process again: part of an editor’s job is to review the copy of the stories and ensure that even if a report does have a particular slant (liberal or conservative), it’s limited to specific evidence that can support it.
3. Sources frequently withhold their names
Plenty of stories have surfaced from the Trump White House that demonstrate a clear pattern of ignorance, misconduct, and/or sheer laziness on the part of our president and the people he’s hired. And almost without fail, any report that cites an unnamed source (like the one published by NBC News yesterday) is immediately seized upon by Trump’s supporters (and Trump himself) as evidence of media bias.
According to the “fake news” crowd, any information that isn’t directly attributed to a specific person is inadmissible. Which is strange for two reasons: first, odds are the average person doesn’t know the source anyway, so giving a name doesn’t do much except give conspiracy theorists a new rabbit hole to fall into (“A-HA! In 2003, he liked a Facebook post comparing GWB to Alf, which is clear evidence that he’s a SECRET REPUBLICAN HATER who probably works for the Deep State!”).
Second, it seems as though some people believe that “unnamed source” is code for “fake person.” While that theory is exciting (and allows Trump supporters to automatically dismiss any information that doesn’t come from a specific person to whom they can ascribe any number of ludicrous motives), when it comes to politics, the only way to report the news is to get information from well-placed sources. And the only way to get that information is by protecting the identity of the source.
Some stories would be impossible to report without the use of unnamed sources, often because the backlash for the source would be too severe; in the case of the Tillerson story, any source who gave their name would almost certainly be fired. (FiveThirtyEight offers a helpful primer on when to trust stories that use unnamed sources.) Whatever their reasons for doing so, a source withholding their name should not be considered cause for suspicion.
Bias is an inevitable part of journalism, but don’t dismiss an outlet just because you think they have a liberal/conservative agenda. As a general rule, there are a few criteria I use when determining if a story is accurate, biased, made up, or ignores so many facts that the meaning of the information is completely distorted.
How many sources are there?
There should at least be two; if an outlet can’t find more than one source to corroborate a story, there’s something fishy about it.
What are other outlets saying?
If a story surfaces that seems huge, keep an eye on it. Other outlets will inevitably independently fact-check a story before they piggyback on the reporting — if they start talking about the story, there’s a good chance they’re comfortable that the information is accurate and reliable.
On the other hand, if after a day or two, no other outlet has mentioned it, they may have concerns about the veracity of the story and don’t want to touch it. Generally speaking, if only one outlet is reporting on a massive story, odds are there’s a problem with the story.
Does the headline make me feel shocked or outraged?
A common tactic of fake news purveyors is to present their stories with clickbait headlines that are designed to make the reader feel intense emotion. For example, if you don’t use an ad blocker, you’ll probably see something about “This Secret Will Bury The Obamas” at the bottom of this page.
In 99% of these cases, the stories behind them are absolute bullshit. Either they’re making the facts up, or they’re distorting them to such an insane degree that they may as well be made up. Good reporting doesn’t need to trick you into reading it — if the story is solid, it will stand up on its own.
Trump and his supporters can claim “fake news” all they want, but in all likelihood, a Secretary of State referred to his boss and the President as a “fucking moron.” By continually making unfounded claims to distract his audience from the real issues, Donald Trump has become a bigger peddler of fake news than any of the media outlets he criticizes.
Don’t fall for it.