August 2017

Behind the Scene

by Randy Limbird
Editor & Publisher, El Paso Scene

In a previous career, our current president was most famous for the phrase “You’re fired.” As a politician and tweeter, his most enduring phrase so far has been “Fake News!”
As a long-time journalist, I suppose I should be offended, but actually I wish more people were on the lookout for fake news. I just wish they had a better definition of what it is.
The most obvious category of “fake news” is absolute fiction. Classic examples are “urban legends,” such as tales of sewer-dwelling alligators and vanishing hitchhikers. Outside of certain supermarket tabloids, such stories rarely ever made it to the level of “news” until the internet came along. Then they began going viral.
Even the conventional media get involved at that point. The fictional story becomes news once it starts becoming cited as truth. Examples: The U.S. government blew up the World Trade Center. Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya. Top Democrats ran a child sex ring based out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. All of these “fake news” stories were covered by conventional news media.
If a story has no basis in fact, the easiest way to get it into the news is to report on the fact that the story exists at all. A rumor become news if enough people are talking about it.
Why does such fake news get any traction at all? Because people are willing to believe anything that supports their point of view. We’ve stopped caring about facts. We only care about proving ourselves to be right — even if that means believing stories that are totally wrong.
In my 40 years of studying and working in journalism, very few reporters are guilty of inventing news. Occasionally one gets caught making up quotes by a non-existent anonymous source — and in such cases the punishment is an automatic loss of job. But there’s little penalty for quoting a real person who’s passing on a story that has no merit.
There are other definitions of “fake news” that don’t involve lies. A lot of what we call “news” isn’t really news at all, although it may be completely true.
• Stories based on nothing more than people’s opinions. No new facts, just people arguing over what’s right or wrong. This includes the majority of what passes for political news. TV news shows invite extremists from opposing sides just to add drama, without ever adding insight.
• Rehashes of old news. Local newspapers have long been guilty of this. They’ll take the slightest new development in an ongoing story and paste on dozens of inches of copy from past stories.
• False narratives. This is by far the largest category of “fake news.” Here’s the dirty little secret of journalism: Facts don’t make news, stories do.
Here’s a classic example from decades ago. Gerald Ford was the most accomplished athlete ever to serve as president (he was a star football player on a national championship college team), but after a couple of mishaps were caught on camera, he suffered a reputation as our clumsiest president. Nothing was further from the truth, but once the narrative was established, every time he tripped or fell became news. Or “fake news,” depending on your point of view.
That was a fairly trivial example, but we do the same when we commit to a narrative that brands a president as a savior or a scoundrel. Or decides that police are always right or always wrong. Or says members of one political party are greedy and evil, and the others are stupid and lazy. In a polarized society, narratives come first, facts later (if at all).

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